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A river divides

Julian Bohne / sadJuly 16, 2014

Environmental groups are in court appealing plans to deepen the Elbe River. The dredging will allow bigger container ships to reach Hamburg's port but local farmers say that it is going to affect water quality adversely.

Port of Hamburg, aerial view
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

This week Germany’s Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig is checking the legality of proposed plans to deepen the Elbe River. German environmental groups NABU and BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) have brought the appeal.

The groups say that the plans to dredge the river clash with the aims of the EU water quality directive. This stipulates that by 2015 all European waterways need to have a "good" water quality. The court has set aside six days to hear the case.

When compared with train or road transport, container ships are relatively environmentally-friendly, say supporters. But, the size of the newest ships also impacts the environment. Bigger ships mean that harbors and canals need to be deepened, just like in the Elbe River which links Hamburg to the coast.

According to planners, in future ships with 13.5 meters (44.3 feet) draft should be able to reach Hamburg’s port. At the moment modern container ships can’t arrive fully-loaded and port authorities fear an impending drop in business. But, environment groups say that other deep sea port options exist, for instance in nearby Wilhelmshaven and that dredging will affect water quality.

Farmers worst affected

Local farmers are going to be among the worst affected by any possible water quality changes in the Elbe, they say. The community of Jork in Altes Land is surrounded by hundreds of fruit orchards. One of them belongs to Gerd Lefers, who grows cherries for his family business that's been operating since the 1700s.

"The planners themselves admit that the last time the river was dredged the salt-water zone moved 25 kilometers upriver," Lefers said. "This time they say it will only be a few hundred meters, but the amount of sediment they’ll remove will equal the three previous dredges taken together, so I simply can’t believe that."

Blooming apple trees in Altes Land, Lower Saxony.
The many orchards of Altes Land are dependent on water from the adjacent ElbeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Farmers here fear their land, some of central Europe's most productive, will become saline, and their fears are echoed by environmentalists. If the plans were to go ahead it would be the ninth time the Elbe has been dredged since the early 19th Century and it would lead to ocean water pushing further up river at high tide.

At more than 10,000 hectares, northern Germany's Altes Land is one of the biggest fruit-growing regions of central Europe.

It borders the western bank of the mighty Elbe River, which provides the fruit farmers with the water they need to grow their produce. Lefers says it would cause saltwater to intrude into canals and make irrigation brackish.

How far saltwater will intrude inland is a matter of dispute. The state of Lower Saxony has offered some fruit farmers in Altes Land money to adapt their irrigation systems, but the region around Jork village is too far upriver and wouldn't benefit.

Farmers like Lefers fear that in addition to reaching further inland, saltwater will seep into the water table, ruining much of the region's farm land over time.

At the bottom of the river, an impermeable layer of clay prevents sea water from passing through coarse sand and entering the groundwater.

"If that layer is damaged during the dredging process, then salt water will enter it, and the underground water channels will distribute it throughout the entire region," Lefers claimed.

Containers being unloaded at the Port of Hamburg
Hamburg port wants the deepening to keep its edge in the shipping marketImage: AP

Environmental impacts

Environmental groups warn that dredging the river also threatens some of the region's endemic marine and plant life. Manfred Braasch, managing director of BUND, said oxygen concentrations in the river could fall bellow a critical threshold of 3 milligrams. This "would be devastating for the fish fauna," Braasch told DW.

Shallow waters along riverbanks are "flooded with light - it's where small organisms are born and it's also the nursery for Elbe fish. If these shallow waters decrease further, the system could collapse," Braasch said. Dredging would also increase the Elbe's velocity, Braasch added, causing other problems for some fish species.

The river is the last remaining habitat for the Elbe Water Dropwort - a critically endangered plant. "It's the botanical panda bear, if you like - only around 2,000 to 2,500 specimens of this plant are left."

Hamburg wants capacity

After Rotterdam, the port of Hamburg is the second-biggest in Europe, providing jobs for an estimated 150,000 people. Norman Zurke is managing director of the Association of Hamburg Port Enterprises, which represents more than 100 businesses. If large ocean-going vessels can't reach the port anymore because they've outgrown the river, it would have adverse effects on the entire region, Zurke said.

Port operators can adjust, but ships can't, he said. "If we can't process those ships in our ports they'll go elsewhere. We would lose our significance as a world port," Zurke told DW.

Dredging opponents say the largest vessels wouldn't need to use Hamburg if they called at nearby Bremerhaven or the new port at Wilhelmshaven. But Norman Zurke disagrees. He says expected volumes of more than 40 million 20-foot containers per year at German North Sea ports can't be processed at one location alone.

"It can only be done through several ports, and out of the German ones, Hamburg is the biggest. We'll need that capacity," Zurke said.