How the Rhine river was transformed from grotty marshland to tourist haven

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How the Rhine river was transformed from grotty marshland to tourist haven

Nowadays the Rhine is Europe's most important inland waterway, but 200 years ago, the popular boat tour destination was little more than a malaria-infested marsh. It has only become the picturesque hotspot it is today thanks to the work of one pioneering engineer.


At the beginning of the 1800's, the Upper Rhine was wild and wide. The river was an immense network of interconnecting streams, coves and marshy hollows.

Surrounding riverside forests hid a vast array of insects, frogs and birds and the water was home to 45 different kinds of fish.

But the river and its banks weren't just an ideal habitat for wildlife, the swampy water was also a breeding ground for malaria, typhus and dysentery, making the riverside an unpleasant and sometimes deadly place to be.

Then along came hydraulic engineer Johann Gottfried Tulla, who began perhaps the biggest construction project in German history: to tame, shape and control the river.

In 1817, Tulla began his endeavour to regulate the Rhine by narrowing and shortening it. The length of the river between Basel, on the Swiss-German border, and Worms, near Frankfurt, was shortened by more than 75km, from 345km to 273km, according to historian David Blackbourn. 

The construction work made the upper Rhine navigable by boat, meaning that ships could journey up and down the Rhineland freely.

In a memoir, Tulla described how he wanted the river to have a uniform width of between 200 and 250 metres, at that point in time the river sometimes stretched up to 40 km wide in zones where it meandered.

Tulla's biggest motivation for the project was to protect cities from the frequent flooding which occurred because of the Rhine. Villages had to be constantly relocated because they were left underwater after sudden flooding.

The Rhine changed its course every year, sometimes twice or three times, which made living near it difficult, as new bridges had to be built constantly.

The inhabitants of the Upper Rhine had attempted to combat the problem before, by securing banks and creating dykes, but when one place was protected from the dangers of the river, the flooding was just moved on to another town or city.

A painting of the Rhine in its previous natural form by Peter Birmann (1890). Photo: DPA

Through the regulation of the Rhine, the whole culture of the region was changed. The riverside forests, marshes and wetland meadows on the Rhine soon turned into land suitable for farming, and the breeding grounds for disease all disappeared.

But there were also negative effects, as the spawning grounds for salmon, sturgeon, shad and lamprey were removed and, by effectively destroying the previous river landscape, fish, dragonflies, amphibians and plants were all negatively affected.

Through regulating the river, Tulla committed what would today be considered a crime against the environment, says Lothar Kroll, who works for the Rhineland-Palatine State Office for the environment. 

After Tulla's project, the Rhine's riverbed sunk deeper and deeper, in some places as deep as 7 metres, leading to the groundwater level sinking, which has had fatal consequences for the trees and plants on the bank.

Through the rebuilding of the Upper Rhine, the danger of heavy flooding downstream also increased, affecting Koblenz, Bonn and Cologne. As a consequence the river there was also narrowed.

"There is a spiral in motion. After every flood, the dams become even higher, the Rhine even faster, which leads to more floods again," says Eike-Christian Heine from the Braunschweig University of Technology. 

Many conservationists would like to give more space to the Rhine, not only for retaining basins but floodplain forests.

But measures to "renaturalise" the Rhine are virtually impossible, says Iris Baumgärtner, director of the Reed Museum in western Germany.

"On the tributaries, such as Murg and Alb, it would be possible, but on the Rhine. Everywhere was built up to the shore, there are barrages. A change would also have consequences for shipping." 

Kroll also talks about the "heavily altered water body" and says that "the water has transformed so much that it will never return to a natural state."


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