Low water levels in the Rhine river threaten new problems for German industry, which is concerned about high energy costs, disrupted supply chains and inflated prices.
Water levels in the Rhine have continued to drop recently due to high temperatures and a lack of rain in the region.
Minister promotes dredging plan as water levels drop
As some ships were unable to traverse the key waterway fully loaded, Transport Minister Volker Wissing called for the river to be dredged to allow more cargo to travel down it. In the long term, he said there was a need to “transfer more traffic from road to rail and waterways.”
He said the planned dredging of the Rhine was the blueprint for a recent German government study into the “best cost-effective” long-term travel strategy.
“We need to remove the bottlenecks in the Rhine at certain points. We need the waterway,” said Wissing. Completion of the “giant project” would take until the early 2030s, she said.
The investment would amount to around 180 million euros (about 183 million dollars), of which around 40% would be for accompanying ecological measures.
As transport minister in Rhineland-Palatinate, Wissing had already campaigned for the deepening of the Rhine between St. Goar and Mainz. This would allow the ships to carry around 200 tons more cargo. “That equates to 10 or 15 truckloads,” he had said at the time.
Levels drop earlier than usual
Normally, when water levels drop below a critical mark over a 30-day period, industrial production declines, explained Nils Jannsen, an economic expert at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW).
“In 2018, when navigation on the Rhine was last hampered by receding waters for an extended period, industrial output fell by around 1.5% at its peak,” Jannsen said. “It could be an added burden that shipping is a relatively important means of transporting energy products.”
Low water levels are also emerging earlier than normal, with the lowest water levels typically occurring later in the year, in September or October.
The water level is particularly low in a narrow part of Kaub near Koblenz, currently about 56 centimeters (less than 2 feet) deep. However, boats need around 1.5 meters to be able to sail fully loaded.
“We keep sailing, but we can only load around 25 to 35 percent of the ship’s capacity,” said Roberto Spranzi, director of the shipping cooperative DTG, which operates around 100 ships on the Rhine.
“That means customers often need three ships to move their cargo, rather than just one.”
The authorities do not close the river at low water. They let the ship operators decide whether or not they want to continue sailing on the Rhine.
“We will continue as long as it is possible to sail,” Spranzi said.
Vessel capacity is already tight, he said, as demand has increased.
One reason, he said, is that Germany wants to increase coal-fired power generation to prepare for reduced gas supplies from Russia.
Strong impact on industry giants
The Rhine is an important shipping route for raw materials such as grain, chemicals, minerals, coal, and petroleum products, including fuel oil.
Companies are closely monitoring their water levels and the potential impact on their operations.
A BASF spokesman said the chemical corporation may have to cut production of certain assets in the coming weeks.
Chemical group Evonik and steel conglomerate ThyssenKrupp said they have taken steps to ensure their production is not at risk for the time being by loading materials that could be affected by the impossibility of cargo traffic.
Energy concern Uniper says there could be irregularities in electricity production via coal-fired power plants at Staudinger in Hesse and Datteln in North Rhine-Westphalia until early September as coal supply is not guaranteed.
los/msh (dpa, Reuters)