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Low Rhine levels threaten to sink industries

Insa Wrede
July 21, 2022

Water levels in Europe's most important river have dropped amid searing temperatures, bringing back memories of the 2018 drought that shut down the waterway. Are businesses better prepared now?

A picture of the Rhine near Dusseldorf showing the barren banks of the river in July 2022
Water levels in the Rhine River are just inches away from forcing another shutdown of ship transportationImage: Michael Gstettenbauer/IMAGO

As Europe bakes in a heat wave, water levels in its rivers are falling to precariously low levels. Germany's Rhine is no exception, with the current water level of the most vital waterway in Europe being described as "unusually low for the season" by Christian Hellbach from the Waterway and Shipping Authority in Cologne, Germany.

"Normally, the low water days for the Rhine begin in July and reach their peak in September and October," he told DW.

Okke Hamann, chief executive of the Lower Rhine Chamber for Industry and Commerce, also said that the low water had come rather early this year, as levels have not yet reached over 2 meters (78.7 inches) at the gauge in Duisburg, which is Europe's biggest inland port. "The low level means barges need to reduce their cargo load to be able to navigate the river," he told DW.

And Roberto Spranzi from the DTG German Inland Navigation Association also expressed concern about the emerging situation along the Rhine, telling DW that the professional shippers the organization represents were currently allowed to transport "just about 50% of the cargo" they usually carried.

Three cargo ships on the Middle Rhine River.
At normal water levels, one ship can carry the cargo of about 150 trucksImage: picture-alliance/J. Tack

Scarcity wherever you look

About 195 million tons of cargo are shipped on Germany's rivers each year — mostly on the Rhine, which is critical for moving coal, gasoline, heating oil, chemicals, car parts, food and thousands of other goods. Western Europe's biggest river serves as an artery connecting industrial hubs in Germany, France and Switzerland with seaports in the Netherlands and Belgium.

The early arrival of low water comes at an inopportune time for the many businesses dependent on the Rhine. Many of them were only recently able to restore supply chains that were heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 health crisis. Shipping demand is high, said Hamann, as businesses are anxiously replenishing their inventories to shield against further supply snarls.

Low water is worsening already existing capacity constraints in Germany's transportation sector, as more ships and barges are needed to carry the same amount of goods.

"We are fully booked," said Spranzi whose business operates more than 100 ships on the Rhine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine also comes into play here. As a result of sanctions against Moscow, Germany has decided to use less Russian gas for electricity production and more coal. The rise in demand for the fossil fuel requires more transportation capacity. Current coal stockpiles at German power plants would "last no longer than one week of full-capacity generation," the Steag power utility in Essen said in a press release at the beginning of July.

The sudden spike in coal transport is hitting a sector that had begun to reduce capacities because of Germany's planned exit from coal-based power generation over the next decade. Steag, for example, said it had already begun cutting the number of barges, freight wagons, and trains, including drivers, it uses for coal transport.

A cargo ship carrying coal on the Rhine River
Due to sanctions against Russia, Germany will have to import more coal in the coming years to generate electricity Image: Imago/Westend61

Spranzi told DW that the scarcity of transport capacity on the Rhine had also been compounded by the fact that many barges and cargo ships are currently needed to transport grains out of Ukraine due to the Russian blockade of the country's Black Sea ports.

Memories of the 2018 drought shock

The current situation has brought back memories of a severe drought that hit the Rhine in 2018, when the waterway was shut for goods transport for a total 132 days.

According to data from the Federation of German Industries, one-third of the companies situated there suffered "significantly higher transportation costs of up to 50%" at the time, while two-thirds were only "insufficiently able to maintain their supply chains" with other modes of transport.

BASF, the world's biggest chemical company, which is situated on the Rhine near Ludwigshafen, attempted to transfer the transport of its goods from ships to trucks, trains and a pipeline. But the company said that only about a third of its daily transportation needs could have been covered. It added that to fully replace cargo ships with road transport would have required a fleet of 1,600 trucks per day, and had been "ruled out as an option."

Parched earth along the banks of the Rhine River during the drought in 2018.
In 2018, water levels in the Rhine dropped to lows unseen along the river, hugely impacting thousands of businessesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Gerten

2018 lessons learned?

Following the 2018 drought shock, authorities have introduced a Low Water Action Plan for the Rhine, with the aim of improving the forecasting of water levels for companies to be able to sharpen their contingency plans. 

The construction of lower-lying barges and ships is also part of this subsidies-backed plan. Chamber representative Hamann told DW that BASF had started by chartering such vessels because the company's own ship of this type was still under construction.

Hamann has urged the authorities to speed up investment in Rhine infrastructure such as deepening the river's bed and building new locks. He said that this was an essential part of the original plan. "[But] the federal government has cut budget expenditure for inland navigation infrastructure by €350 million until 2023, reducing the money to be spent for this purpose to €1.3 billion," he said, lamenting that the cuts were in stark contrast to official government policies aiming to transfer more cargo from roads to trains and ships.

Hans-Heinrich Witte, the president of the General Directorate for Waterways and Shipping (GDWS), told DW that river shipping had "an important role to play in meeting Germany's climate goals." GDSW is the government agency responsible for shipping infrastructure, and Witte noted that German rivers had "significantly higher potential to carry more ship cargo" than was currently used.

Hamann, however, argued that since 2018 he had not seen "anything concrete that would help shipping meet the challenges of low-water situations presently and going forward."

How is the heat wave gripping Europe?

Of extreme weather and slow solutions

At the moment, it's still unclear whether the Rhine will see a similarly dramatic drop as in in 2018, said Christian Hellbach from the waterway authority in Cologne. "For the next six weeks, Rhine levels will remain in the low-water gauge."

After a searing heat wave this week, a little bit of rain fell along the Rhine on Thursday — far from enough to "lean back comfortably," said Christoph Heinzelmann from the Federal Waterways Engineering and Research Institute, which is another German government agency in the sector. Speaking to DW, he repeated the often-heard call for "speeding up efforts to implement solutions."

This article was originally written in German.