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Rhine water levels expected to drop even further

August 11, 2022

Already critically low water levels in Germany's most important waterway could drop even lower next week. Shipping costs have climbed as much as five times as barges are forced to carry fewer goods.

Low water levels in the Rhine in Mainz
Water levels are expected to keep dropping in the Rhine, a key shipping route for GermanyImage: Hannes P Albert/dpa/picture alliance

German authorities are bracing for further shipping disruptions due to low levels in busy waterways.

The Federal Institute of Hydrology (BfG) has forecast that water levels in the Rhine River will continue dropping until the beginning of next week.

BfG expert Bastian Klein told Germany's dpa press agency that shallow-draft barges can pass through the Middle Rhine in levels as low as 30 to 35 centimeters. But, by next week, levels at the Kaub gauge, the most important water level measurement station in the Middle Rhine, could slip to 30 centimeters, potentially bringing traffic to a standstill.

The Kaub gauge is located around 50 kilometers downstream from the city of Mainz. 

Fully loaded ships generally need a level of at least about 1.5 meters, but a persistent lack of rain and high temperatures have led to low water levels.

Barges on the Rhine — which carry critical supplies for German industrial giants and coal for power plants — are already being loaded at just one-quarter to one-half capacity, to keep them higher in the water. 

Boats are also in shorter supply than normal, due to increased demand for coal amid the energy crisis, and some ships being diverted to pick up Ukrainian grain via the Danube.

This has pushed up shipping costs by as much as five times, according to industry reports.

The Rhine river at Cologne
Normally covered by water, the banks of the Rhine grow larger in Cologne Image: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

Rerouted to rail

Germany's Transport and Economy Ministries are working to divert supply chains to rail, and are considering intervening to prioritize critical goods, a transport ministry spokesman told Reuters agency.

In 2018, even lower water levels led to production problems and supply bottlenecks for German companies.

Other rivers have faced similar problems, leading to problems for the tourist industry. For example, low water levels in the Weser, in Germany’s northwest, have led to the cancellation of tourist ferries.

And in Lake Constance, on the border with Switzerland and Austria, pleasure boats have been left stranded as water levels drop to lows not seen since 2003. 

Shipping issues may also affect the upcoming grain harvest in Germany, with the Raiffeisen Association telling public broadcaster SWR that storage areas in southern Germany are already full and the grain cannot be transported away in sufficient quantities.

To replace one barge, up to 40 trucks are required to carry the same load of grain.And the trucking industry has long complained of a shortage of drivers, a situation only exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Increased chance of recession

A study by British analysis firm Capital Economics released on Thursday found that the low water levels have increased the chance of a recession in Germany, potentially costing 0.2 percentage points of economic growth in the third and fourth quarters.

Capital Economics' chief economist Andrew Kenningham said Germany is particularly reliant on its rivers to transport freight, especially for industrial raw materials such as coal, crude oil, coke and basic chemicals. 

Separately, masses of dead fish were reported in the eastern Oder river. Reports from Brandenburg said several tons of dead fish washed up on the banks of the river in Brandenburg.

Water levels are currently low in the Oder, but authorities are investigating whether the river, which runs through Poland, was polluted. Workers dealing with the dead fish reported skin rashes from contact with the water.

aw/wmr (dpa, Reuters)

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