WJ Editorial
WJ Editorial

Worldwide Drought, Heat Stress River Transportation

This summer, the entire northern hemisphere is experiencing record-breaking levels of drought and heat that have shrunk many important rivers used for transportation. 

In China, due to an unprecedented drought, water flow on the Yangtze River main trunk is more than 50 percent below the average of the last five years. The Yangtze is the world’s third largest river, providing drinking water to more than 400 million people. The world’s most heavily trafficked waterway, the Yangtze has almost completely dried up in some places. State media have reported that shipping routes in the middle and lower sections have closed.

This drying has not only halted barge transportation, but also has threatened hydropower for large swaths of the Chinese population concentrated along the Yangtze valley. Sichuan province, which gets 80 percent of its power from hydropower, is in a “dire situation,” authorities warned. Toyota, Foxconn and Tesla have halted Chinese operations due to power cuts. Drought and heat are wreaking havoc with China’s crops. 

In Europe and the U.K., 63 percent of the entire land area is under some kind of drought warning. England has declared drought emergencies in eight out of 14 areas. The Rhine River, central Europe’s main water transportation artery, has almost dried up in spots, slowing or halting barge traffic, shutting factories and causing further spikes in energy prices. At press time, levels had risen slightly due to some rain relief, but they are still well below historical averages.

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The low river has exposed “hunger stones,” or stones engraved with warnings of famine in earlier times. The river cruise business, which was just beginning to recover from COVID, has been affected. The Rhine provides about 6 percent of Germany’s cargo movement, as opposed to 50 percent by truck. But volume alone doesn’t tell the whole story because many key bulk commodities and heavy equipment on which German industries depend are carried by water.  

Spain is facing what may be its worst drought in 1,000 years. The Valdecanas reservoir dropped to 28 percent of capacity, exposing a prehistoric stone circle dubbed the “Spanish Stonehenge,” which has only been fully visible four times since 1963.

France has received less rain than at any time since national weather records began to be kept in 1958. France’s corn harvest is expected to be 20 percent below average, according to its agricultural ministry. In Italy, the Po River, whose winter snowmelt was 70 percent below average, is also drying up, as are many Swiss rivers. 

The United States has not escaped the hemispheric drought. The Colorado River system is operating at 34 percent of peak capacity, down from 40 percent last year. The lowering of Colorado River water levels has sparked panicked talk, once again, of diverting Mississippi River water out west.

But we are more fortunate than most countries, especially in our eastern half. Compared with most navigable river systems around the hemisphere, our waterways are doing OK. Mississippi, Illinois  and Ohio river stages are normal. The Missouri River is down this year, but still not that badly off, despite the western drought. The 2022 calendar year runoff forecast for the upper Missouri Basin above Sioux City is about 80 percent of average. 

This summer’s river distress around the world provides an occasion for thankfulness for our waterway infrastructure improvements that have better controlled and distributed the abundant water resources we have.