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Deepening divide over Elbe dredging

Mariel Müller
December 19, 2016

The struggle continues over a plan to deepen the Elbe River. Proponents say it will create jobs. Opponents have environmental concerns. A federal court in Leipzig will begin hearing arguments today.

Deutschland Containerschiff CSCL
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/D. Bockwoldt

The project to deepen the Elbe River is a classic conflict: economic growth versus environmental protection. A federal court in Leipzig will hear arguments this week in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups against state and federal planning authorities.

The background

The Elbe is Germany's most significant waterway. A crucial stretch is the 130 kilometers between Hamburg and the mouth of the North Sea near Cuxhaven. Global shipping uses this route to offload goods at the Port of Hamburg, the most important in the region and among the top ten worldwide. The port employs 150,000 people.

Infografik Karte Map Elbe river deepening plans ENG

The river has been deepened eight times since 1818, from 3.5 meters then to 14.9 meters today, keeping pace with global commerce that has demanded ever larger ships. The newest project aims to accommodate the new generation of mega container ships, regardless of tidal flows. The Marco Polo, for example, carries 16,000 containers and has a draft (the vertical distance between waterline and ship's keel) of 16 meters. Given present river depths and tides, such ships can only enter Hamburg at certain times and when not fully loaded.

Planners want to change this so ships with a draft of 13.5 meters can safely enter the port at any time. Currently, a maximum draft of 12.5 meters is possible when unassisted by high tide.

China Containerschiff CMA CGM Marco Polo in Hong Kong
The Marco Polo has space for 16,000 containersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Hofford

The lawsuit's defendants and plan supporters consider river deepening essential to Hamburg's economic development. The project would create 40,000 jobs, experts estimate. If the project goes forward as envisioned, the port will handle 25 million containers by 2025, up from 8.8 million today. If the project is blocked, the State of Hamburg fears major shipping would turn more to larger ports at Antwerp and Rotterdam. Port-dependent business would suffer, tax revenue would decrease and unemployment would increase.

Planners seek to minimize impact on the existing river ecosystem. Tidal range, that is river levels between low and high tides, should not be affected.

Tidal range is a prime cause for erosion, which previous river dredging, as well as waves generated by passing ships, have exacerbated. Tidal range at the Port of Hamburg was measured at 1.5 meters 150 years ago. Since, it has risen to 3.6 meters.

"There is a direct relationship between deepening the Elbe and the increase of the tidal range, and how strongly it increases," said Malte Siegert, director of environmental policy at the Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). This organization, together with the support of WWF, and BUND, another German environment group, are the lead plaintiffs.

Environment advocates have several reasons to raise alarm about the project, foremost being larger sediment deposits, Siegert said. As the river deepens, more seawater from the North Sea flows at a faster rate towards Hamburg, bringing sediment that builds up on the riverbed. The Hamburg Port Authority dredges the river to counteract the build up, which cost taxpayers 120 million euros ($125 million) in 2015.

Deutschland Schwimmbagger im Hamburger Hafen
Dredgers have to regularly remove sediment from the riverbedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gambarini

The Elbe's banks are feeding grounds for migratory birds, which the project would hinder. "Between erosion of the shore zones and sand deposits, the banks would be sandy regions where birds could no longer feed," she said.

Divert to JadeWeserPort

Shippers could turn to the JadeWeserPort, a deepwater hub at Wilhelmshaven that opened in 2012. The State of Hamburg was part of the original construction project, agreed to in 2000 with the federal government, Lowers Saxony and Bremen. It backed out two years later and announced plans to deepen the Elbe.

The two projects amount to an expensive redundancy, Siegert said, with the JadeWeserPort costing $1.6 billion and the Elbe project an additional $940 million. "This is the reason for our protest: They decided on the first port, and now they should coordinate traffic, so that the really large ships can go to Wilhelmshaven or, under certain restrictions, to Hamburg."