Low Rhine levels risk leaving German waterways unnavigable

Low Rhine levels risk leaving German waterways unnavigable
Credit: Hartmut Schmidt Heidelberg/Wikimedia Commons

Water levels in the Rhine, one of western Europe’s longest rivers and an integral part of the German economy, are set to hit critical levels on 12 August. It is likely the waters will drop so low that large sections of the river will be completely unnavigable by ships, which use Germany’s inland waterways to move goods and cargo.

In the city of Kaub, in Rhineland-Palatinate, a key water measuring point shows that levels have already dropped to just 48cm as of 10 August. By Friday, there are fears that this will fall to less than 40cm.

Each year, some 300 million tonnes of goods are shipped on the Rhine between Switzerland and the North Sea. Europe’s waterways transport annually one tonne of freight for each EU resident, which contributes €77 billion to the European economy.

Low water levels threaten Europe's industrial heartline

In Germany, the Rhine river is an essential element in the logistics of Europe’s industrial heartland of the Ruhr. Coal-fired power plants, steelmakers, and other industries rely on the river to ship essential materials, such as diesel and coal.

This unusually warm summer has already compounded the European energy crisis, a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. River water is currently too warm to cool France’s nuclear reactors, Germany is unable to fuels down its waterways, and Switzerland is reportedly tapping into its special reserves of hydrocarbons due to logistics problems.

The low levels reported in the Rhine in August are unprecedented. At the Kaub measuring station, this August has one of the lowest water levels on record. The last time the river was so low was in October 2018. Back then, many large ships were unable to navigate the Rhine’s waters.

Falling water levels have unveiled massive sandbanks and forced the heaviest user of the Rhine, German chemical company BASF, to already order specialised low-water barges to transport liquified natural gas (LNG). Last time the company was disrupted by low-water levels, it lost around €250 million.

“I’ve never, ever, seen this,” Gunther Jaegers, managing director at Rhine stalwart Reederei Jaegers GmbH told American publication Bloomberg, “it is insane.” Jaegers says that much of the Rhine now resembles a “desert.”

Logistics networks paralysed

German industry in the Ruhr region, as well as other regions of the country, have been crippled by the effects of drought on the Rhine. Germany energy company Uniper has warned that it is struggling to get the coal it needs to provide power to the region, running German plans to restart mothballed coal-fired power plants.

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The cost of shipping anything down the Rhine has reached record highs. The cost of shipping fuel to Basel in Switzerland along the Rhine now costs more than €270 per tonne compared to just €25 at the start of June.

The impact of these price hikes has been an increase in road and rail cargo. Unfortunately, Germany currently has a chronic deficit of up to 80,000 truck drivers and the country’s rail network is now chronically congested.

Over 60% of the European Union is currently being impacted by drought, leading to a wave of large-scale forest fires and water shortages. In the Netherlands, the low Rhine flow has severely impacted the availability of water, with Dutch authorities declaring a national water shortage.

There are fears that these water levels could continue for quite some time. Beyond Friday, waters could fall to as low as 37cm. German companies will be hoping for rainfall within the coming months to give some respite to the country’s beleaguered logistical networks, as well as agriculture and reservoirs.

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