From its source in Switzerland, flowing through Germany and the Netherlands into the North Sea, the Rhine River is a major transport route, especially important for raw materials and goods from coal and iron ore to chemicals, fertilizers and car parts. With more than 1,200 kilometres, it is the second-longest river in western Europe.
Last year, low water levels in the Rhine rendered part of it unnavigable for the first time in history. This summer, the high temperatures and low rainfall in Europe put Rhine traffic at risk once more, reports Bloomberg. Low water levels in Germany’s waterways are estimated to have caused a 0.7% drop in the country’s GDP in 2018, said the business news agency last January. The impact includes impaired transport and production processes that use river water as a coolant. Compounded with the impact of shocks in the auto and pharmaceutical industries, it contributed to Germany’s economy shrinking in the third quarter of 2018 and scarcely growing in the fourth quarter.
The Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine estimated in its April 2019 Market Insight a 27% decrease in transport performance in the third quarter of 2018 compared to the previous year, due to low water levels. The Danube also saw a 10% drop in transport performance at the time.
German companies like BASF and Thyssenkrupp were affected by supply disruptions and are taken steps to mitigate similar conditions as last year’s: buying smaller boats, booking truck and train capacity ─ much more expensive than barge transport ─ and stockpiling supplies in warehouses.
Meanwhile, Germany’s authorities are involved in low water contingency planning. Federal transport minister Andreas Scheuer has issued an action plan to address extreme low water levels in the Rhine and its effects on the logistical chain, known as Niedrigwasser Rhein (Low water Rhine), reports World Cargo News. German companies that depend on this waterway to receive raw materials or ship out their exports have participated in the preparation of the plan, which comprises eight measures; four are short term:
- Improvements to forecasts of water levels in the Rhine ten days ahead and recording of trends
- Establish a Climate and Water Bureau in charge of contingency planning for current and future adaptation strategies
- Include water level data in the electronic inland shipping map
- Strategies to optimise shipping under existing conditions: diversions, additional storage, shallow draught barges, etc.
And four are long term:
- Fast-track infrastructure improvements already in the national traffic infrastructure plan
- Special acts to bypass lengthy planning procedures to implement infrastructure solutions
- Research into long term solutions in the areas of hydraulic engineering (e.g. water locks) and economical shipping
- Increase social dialogue to raise awareness and acceptance of the proposed measures.
This past July, already low water levels at Kaub, near Frankfurt, restricted the movement of the heaviest barges, with water depths of 150 cm, about half the depth in June. If water levels drop below 50 cm, river shipping could come to a halt.