Water is becoming scarce in many inland areas of eastern Germany. The entire network of inland waterways from Saxony via Brandenburg up to the Müritz in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania has been noticeably losing substance for months. Boats with a draft of more than one meter can often only be used to a limited extent.

This effect of climate change is particularly drastic on the banks of the Black Elster. Whoever stands here cannot see the river for the sheer banks. The course of the Brandenburg river has dried up completely in several sections. And not only this one: the White Elster and the Spree have also been carrying too little water for months.

The entire river system and connected lakes are affected by the drought. In March, only seven percent of the long-term precipitation between 1981 and 2010 was measured, the lowest value since weather records began in 1888.

A look at the new “low water traffic light” from the Brandenburg Ministry for the Environment and Climate Protection shows that this is a supra-regional problem. The levels of 26 important measuring points in the federal state are listed as examples on the online map. All but three show the warning level “red”. Only one level is green. This is the Alte Oder, which is separated from the Oder by two locks and is only a third-class waterway.

“We still have a full bathtub,” explains Thomas Frey, spokesman for the Brandenburg State Office for the Environment, the regulations for the water supply in the region. The locks distribute it between rivers, lakes and artificial reservoirs. Hundreds of measuring points check the levels and report the water levels within two to three hours. There is constant regulation, inlets and outlets are opened or closed. A complex system that the authorities in Brandenburg have under control.

Therefore, the problem in Berlin is not yet noticeable. If you look at the water on the Museum Island, where the passenger ships are crowded, you will see no difference to previous years. But the capital has so far been generously supplied by the water management of the surrounding non-city states. “In addition, the colleagues there are very careful with the locks,” Frey told float.

“But what worries us: If nothing else comes up, the water will eventually run out, even in a bathtub…” It has been raining too little for several years, and the problem has worsened in recent months. Drought and heat lead to increased evaporation, especially on the lakes.

“In a 1,000-hectare opencast mining lake, the water loss on a hot summer’s day can be up to one centimeter,” says Uwe Steinhuber, spokesman for the Lausitzer und Mitteldeutsche Bergbau-Verwaltungsgesellschaft, which is rehabilitating the more than 200 square kilometer mining landscape in Lusatia.

Before lignite mining began, he says, Lusatia was a water-rich area full of lakes and swamps. In the past 100 years most of it has been dredged away. Today there is a water shortage, water bodies are drying up – such as the Elsensee south of Berlin, for example, whose inflow dries up completely in summer.

Many open-cast mines have been closed in recent decades, and with the coal phase-out the change is happening even faster. This not only has advantages: “Due to the necessary drainage of the opencast mines, a lot of water accumulates, around half of the Spree is fed with it during dry periods.” When mining ends, this water is no longer available because it is then no longer pumped out and treated .

So the water shortage in East Germany could increase in this respect. Added to this is climate change. The groundwater has been falling for years. In Lusatia, the distinctly rural region south-east of Berlin, 84 percent of the 250 measuring points are an average of 39 centimeters below the seasonally expected level, the FAZ recently reported. In many smaller bodies of water, such as the Rhin and Küstrinchener Bach, paddling trips are no longer possible, says Frey from the State Office for the Environment.

However, the low water light does not help boaters. Only the instructions for shipping from the Brandenburg Office for Building and Housing show specifically where closures and restrictions have to be observed. Here, for example, a diving depth restriction of one meter is currently being reported in the upper reaches of the Spree between Beeskow and Neuhaus lock south of Berlin.

The diving depth is also limited to one meter in the Ruppin Canal between Ruppin and the Havel in northern Brandenburg. Boats with a larger draft get stuck here. The Nuthe, which flows into the Havel near Potsdam, is even more extreme: the diving depth here is only 30 centimeters in the entire navigable area!

Overall, however, there are relatively few warnings, which does not seem particularly threatening. But for years, climate change has been slowly making itself felt in the inland waters. “There are now various bodies of water on which you can no longer travel with the Dutch steel displacement boat type – i.e. draft 1.20 meters and more,” says Dagmar Rockel, press spokeswoman for the houseboat charter company Kuhnle Tours. This applies to the Rheinsberger and Lychener waters in northern Brandenburg, for example.

“But even on the Müritz, Germany’s largest inland lake, you’re no longer well served with a larger boat,” adds the long-time sailor. Because: “Small bays and harbors are becoming inaccessible.” The Bolter Canal now only has a draft of 80 centimeters. The old connection between the southern Müritz and the eastern lakes of the national park is a particularly attractive waterway due to its lush stock of trees. Rockel: “If you have a ship with a draft of 1.20 meters, you have to plan very carefully and navigate precisely in order not to touch down.”

The Kuhnle Tours fleet with 150 ships at six stations in Germany and France is not threatened with any restrictions so far. Their boats have drafts between 0.75 and 0.85 meters. With the takeover of the former competitor Yachtcharter Römer in the spring, the company has become more aware of the issue. Because Römer has many boats with a larger draft in stock. In many places, these charter boats don’t even have a hand’s breadth of water under their keel.

Almost unnoticed, the water and shipping authorities took measures to secure the water levels years ago. In many places only collective locks are common, or there is only one lock every hour. Those responsible for water management are also reacting.

For example, former opencast mining lakes, which are currently being renatured, are to be quickly put to use as storage. But even that is just a drop in the bucket. “The lack of water will be our new normal,” the media quoted Saxony’s Environment Minister Wolfram Günther from the Greens as saying.

What’s next? So far, the reservoirs still have enough supplies. Since the beginning of May, 9.5 cubic meters of water have been flowing from the Spremberg dam into the Spree every second to support the water level. The water of the fourth largest dam in Germany sinks by up to three centimeters per day. And despite planned support, reports the Brandenburg Environment Ministry, the level could not be maintained.

The prospects are not good. In a current press release, the State Office for the Environment assumes that the low water situation will continue. After looking at the weather app, spokesman Thomas Frey remains optimistic: “If everything goes well, it will soon rain in the upper catchment area.” Hopefully he’s right.

This article was written by Roland Wildberg

The original of this article “Drought is particularly drastic on the Black Elster” comes from floatmagazin.