Deep trouble for EU shipping push as Rhine River runs dry

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KAUB, Germany — Grand plans to shift freight off roads and onto rivers don’t much matter if Western Europe’s most important waterway is running too shallow for ships to pass.

Water levels on the Rhine, Europe’s major inland river connecting mega-ports at Rotterdam and Antwerp to Germany’s industrial heartland and landlocked Switzerland, are precipitously low, making it hard for shippers to transfer coal, components, chemicals and other commodities to factories and power plants along the river.

That’s a pressing problem for major industries, but it also puts a damper on EU plans to increase the movement of goods along waterways by 25 percent by 2030 and by 50 percent by 2050 as part of efforts to slash emissions from the transport sector — a laggard when it comes to meeting climate targets.

Persistently low rainfall means the depth of the Rhine was down to 49 centimeters on Sunday at the gauge tower at Kaub, a bottleneck on the 1,200-kilometer river located between Wiesbaden and Koblenz and widely considered to be the most important point for navigators assessing depth.

“If it stays dry then we are going to have a big problem,” said Marc Daniel Heintz, the head of the secretariat at the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR), an organization through which countries coordinate efforts to cut pollution.

Over coffee on the first floor of the ICPR’s office overlooking the Rhine in Koblenz, just meters from where it meets the Moselle, Heintz said it would now take prolonged, torrential rainfall to meaningfully increase the depth.

Such downpours aren’t forecasted for the next two weeks, and levels at the Kaub chokepoint are already lower than they were at the same point in 2018 ahead of that October’s historic low of 25 centimeters.

The water was so low then that the river was closed to ship traffic for weeks, forcing companies to switch their freight to railways and roads. But that’s costly and inefficient since it takes hundreds of trucks or train cars to handle cargoes that can be loaded onto a single barge.

At a time of high inflation, a global supply-chain crunch and a looming gas crisis, low Rhine levels are another headache for Germany Inc. Energy companies are already warning of reduced output at coal-fired power plants due to problems transporting coal along the river. In 2020, researchers from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy said that a month of low water on the Rhine would shave about 1 percent off of German industrial output.

Typically, Heintz said, the Rhine reaches its highest water levels in the spring and early summer and its lowest point in the autumn, but this pattern is changing fast. The record low in 2018 was followed up by unusually high water levels last summer, which forced shipping to stop temporarily in certain areas.

Low rainfall and melting mountain glaciers are two reasons for the extremes.

This year is shaping up to be another record breaker.

An inland vessel navigates on the Rhine as people stand on the shore by a partially dried-up river bed in Duesseldorf, western Germany, on July 25, 2022 | Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

Along the Upper Rhine until Mannheim, the water level is so low that it’s classified as an event seen once every two to five years statistically, but from Mannheim to Duisburg, the stretch including both Kaub and Koblenz, the water is already at a depth typically only seen once every five to 10 years.

“At the Dutch-German border, it can already be classified as a ‘rare’ event that can be expected every 10 years,” said Heintz of the situation further downstream.

That’s at least two months before the Rhine usually hits its lowest level.

Breaking the bottleneck

Snaking its way through Europe, the Rhine is the stuff of mythology in Germany, as wrapped up in the national identity as sausages and crystal clear beer. The Lorelei rock, just a few kilometers downstream from Kaub, is where, so the legend goes, a maiden flung herself into the water and transformed into a wailing siren.

But beyond the mystique, holidaymakers and castles studding the forested valley sides, the river is also a critical economic artery.

Every year, upwards of 300 million tons of goods are shipped along the Rhine between Basel, where Switzerland, Germany and France meet, and the North Sea. Some 80 percent of all waterborne freight within Germany — through which the Elbe, Ruhr and Danube also flow — is carried on the Rhine.

But once water levels decline below 40 centimeters at Kaub, shipping commodities becomes uneconomical. Standing beside the Kaub gauge on Friday — the display dipping under 55 centimeters on the tower following a day of sweltering temperatures — POLITICO could already see rocks jutting up through the water as low-draft barges drifted by.

“When the water levels are low, it is usually not possible to load as much on the ships as usual,” said Dominik Rösch from Germany’s Federal Institute of Hydrology. “Accordingly, the economic efficiency decreases and [freight] switches to road or rail.”

As part of efforts to tackle low water, the German government wants to remove rocks and gravel from some chokepoints, including Kaub, but this poses environmental problems and would require regular maintenance.

Instead, shippers are having to constantly calculate the weight they can shift based on the low water readings at gauges such as Kaub.

“The larger the ship, the less it can carry — relatively speaking,” said Leny van Toorenburg, the head of nautical technical affairs for Dutch shipping industry group KBN, calculating the impact of a 47-centimeter water level.

“Large ships carry some 6,000 tons, and those could now take just 800 tons — that’s less than one-sixth,” she said.

Industrial headache

That’s a big strategic problem for industrial giant BASF, which has its global headquarters and the world’s largest chemicals production site at Ludwigshafen, some 100 kilometers upstream from Kaub, and directly across the Rhine from Mannheim.

Valeska Schößler, a BASF spokesperson, said output had not yet been hit by Rhine water levels, but that the next two weeks could see the depth slip to 35 centimeters. “Some types of ships can no longer be used and will stop sailing; all others will sail with reduced loads,” she said.

Since the record lows of 2018, Schößler said BASF has agreed on a six-week forecasting service with Germany’s Federal Institute of Hydrology to help it plan ahead, and chartered ships suitable for low-water navigation.

It has also ordered new, wider vessels capable of running in extremely shallow water. For example, last year the Gas94 vessel entered into service, which is able to ship natural gas even when water levels hit 30 centimeters at Kaub, Schößler said.

But without significant rain in the weeks ahead, water levels could fall way beneath that.

“I do notice that nowadays — ever since about 2018 — we’re facing lower low waters and higher high waters more often,” said Van Toorenburg. Those also happen at less predictable times, she said, pointing to last summer’s high water: “You cannot count on it anymore, and that’s without doubt a consequence of climate change, I think.”

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