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CLIMATE CRISIS

How the Rhine’s low water levels are impacting Germany

Shocking photos show just how bad the river Rhine looks at the moment after weeks of dry weather. Experts are warning that extreme low water levels are affecting German industry and could hit consumers.

View of Mainz from the dried-up banks of the Rhine. Due to low rainfall and persistently high temperatures, the water level in the Rhine has dropped sharply.
View of Mainz from the dried-up banks of the Rhine. Due to low rainfall and persistently high temperatures, the water level in the Rhine has dropped sharply. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

What’s happening?

Due to the prolonged hot weather and little rainfall in recent weeks, the water levels of the Rhine, one of Europe’s biggest rivers, have dropped sharply. In several places, including near Koblenz, the water level is below one metre. Normal levels here would be 1.50 to 2 metres at this time of year.

Although the Rhine is still carrying more water than in autumn 2018, when the lowest water levels since records began were recorded, it is now moving into this range. At a key measuring point in Kaub near Koblenz, it was just 25 centimetres in 2018. Currently, the water level at this station is 51 centimetres.

The dried up water is causing major problems for German factories which rely on deliveries by ship along the 1,232 km Rhine River.

Weeks of dry weather across Europe have drastically hit water levels on major waterways, and resulted in drought restrictions in some countries. The whole of France has been on a drought alert since the beginning of August.

What does low water on the Rhine mean for shipping?

The Rhine river is important for German inland navigation. Many large industrial centres are located on the river and use it for supplies with raw materials. This includes the BASF chemical plant in Ludwigshafen and the ThyssenKrupp blast furnaces in Duisburg. Fully loaded transport ships, however, need to have a certain amount of space below the water surface to be able to travel on the river.

A fully loaded transport ship needs at least 1.50 metres – and this is no longer guaranteed everywhere. Many barge operators are therefore only sailing with half or a quarter of the normal load. This means that deliveries become delayed because the same route has to be covered several times.

READ ALSO: More floods, droughts and heatwaves: How climate change will impact Germany

What does the low water mean for industry on the Rhine?

Industrial companies that use the Rhine for deliveries have to pay more money, because ships have to sail more frequently, and there are fewer available cargo ships. In June, for example, transport in a liquid tanker from Rotterdam to Karlsruhe still cost €20 per tonne. Recently it climbed to €94 – almost five times as much.

The second disadvantage for industry is that because ships can transport fewer goods, deliveries are delayed so much that they sometimes no longer arrive in time for production. Nationwide, supplies are still sufficient at the moment, but there have been some issues. 

Which companies are most affected?

Energy company Uniper reported that there could be disruption at two of their power plants until September 7th. The two plants are operated with coal that’s normally delivered via the Rhine.

BASF, the speciality chemicals group Evonik and ThyssenKrupp are so far still able to maintain production from stocks and other sources. “However, we cannot completely rule out reductions in the production rates of individual plants for the next few weeks,” a BASF spokeswoman said.

How important is the Rhine for the German economy?

Although the entire water network used for inland navigation in Germany measures about 6,550 kilometres and includes canals as well as rivers, 80 percent of all goods transport takes place on the Rhine. Its water levels are therefore of massive importance to the German economy. Along with parts of the Elbe, the Weser, the Trave and the Kiel Canal, it is the only waterway that the largest inland vessels can navigate.

The level of the Rhine has dropped sharply.

The water level of the Rhine has dropped in recent weeks, causing major problems. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

How does the low water affect consumers?

Consumers are of course also affected by low water levels. A 2019 study by researchers from Giessen, for instance, shows that the 2018 low-water period led to a noticeable increase in the price of diesel in the Rhine area of Cologne, even though oil prices fell noticeably at the time.

At the time, the Cologne tide gauge saw a record low of just 69 centimetres. Economists cited the lack of transport options across the water as the reason, and consequently more expensive alternative transport over land.

Now, too, the low water levels are likely to put further pressure on consumers’ wallets – and again primarily at the petrol pump. Due to the stagnant goods traffic via the shipping lanes, less diesel and heating oil is currently arriving in Bavaria, regional broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk reported. 

Why don’t the logistics companies switch to roads and railways?

Many goods can also be transported by lorry or goods train. But the low water levels come at a bad time: due to Covid infections, there are currently a lot of train drivers off sick. And let’s not forget that Germany is suffering from a worker shortage at the moment, and there are not enough lorry drivers.

What happens to the water levels? Will they keep falling?

Unfortunately, experts believe water levels on the Rhine will continue to fall. The Federal Institute of Hydrology currently estimates water levels of 44 centimetres in a fortnight at the Kaub measuring station. The Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration does not forecast significantly rising water levels for any of the measuring stations on the Rhine in the coming period. If there isn’t a lot of rain soon, the record levels of 2018 are well within reach.

What is the overall impact of the low water?

When the record lows were recorded in 2018, Germany’s total industrial production fell by 1.5 per cent. The Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW) expects a decline of 1.0 per cent if water levels are too low for at least 30 days. That may not sound like much, but with the manufacturing industry in Germany having a monthly turnover of around €180 billion per month, one percent is still a huge amount. And as Germany is already having a tough time due to the effects of the pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine, this is not what anyone needs. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis to labour shortage: Five challenges facing Germany right now

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CLIMATE CRISIS

‘By a substantial margin’: How summer 2022 was Europe’s hottest on record

The summer of 2022 was the hottest in Europe's recorded history, with the continent suffering blistering heatwaves and the worst drought in centuries, the European Commission's satellite monitor said on Thursday.

'By a substantial margin': How summer 2022 was Europe's hottest on record

The five hottest years on record have all come since 2016 as climate change drives ever longer and stronger hot spells and drier soil conditions.

And that created tinderbox forests, increasing the risk of devastating and sometimes deadly wildfires.

The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) said temperatures in Europe had been the “highest on record for both the month of August and the summer (June-August) as a whole”.

Data showed August was the hottest on the continent since records began in 1979 by a “substantial margin”, beating the previous record set in August 2021 by 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.72 Fahrenheit). Temperatures from June through to August 2022 were 1.34C hotter than the historical 1991-2020 average, while August itself was 1.72C higher than average.

READ ALSO: ‘A code red’: Will Europeans change their habits after climate crisis reality check?

An aerial view taken on August 4, 2022 in Les Brenets shows the dry bed of Brenets Lake (Lac des Brenets), part of the Doubs River, a natural border between eastern France and western Switzerland, as much of Europe bakes in a third heatwave since June. – The river has dried up due to a combination of factors, including geological faults that drain the river, decreased rainfall and heatwaves. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

That puts summer in Europe well within the temperature range at which the Paris Agreement on climate change seeks to limit global heating.

The 2015 accord commits nations to cap average global temperatures at “well below” 2C above pre-industrial levels and to strive for a safer guardrail of 1.5C.

Although satellite data only stretches back a few decades, a Copernicus spokeswoman told AFP the service was confident that 2022 was the hottest summer in Europe going as far back as 1880 — at the early stage of the industrial age.

Europe has been battered by a string of heatwaves this year, with temperature records tumbling in many countries and the mercury topping 40C for the first time in Britain.

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) said last month that 2022 was already a record year for wildfires, with nearly 660,000 hectares torched in Europe since January.

‘Summer of extremes’

CAMS said fires in France had seen the highest levels of carbon pollution from wildfires since records began in 2003.

The EU said last month that the current drought parching the continent was the worst in at least 500 years.

The European Commission’s Global Drought Observatory latest bulletin said 47 percent of the continent is currently covered by drought warnings — meaning the soil is drying out.

An additional 17 percent is under drought alert, meaning that vegetation is showing signs of stress, fuelling concerns about the continent’s autumn harvest.

“An intense series of heatwaves across Europe, paired with unusually dry conditions, have led to a summer of extremes with records in terms of temperature, drought and fire activity in many parts of Europe, affecting society and nature in various ways,” said senior C3S scientist Freja Vamborg.

“Data shows that we’ve not only had record August temperatures for Europe but also for summer, with the previous summer record only being one year old.”

On a global level, August 2022 was the joint warmest August on record. The average temperature was 0.3C higher than the 1991-2020 average for the month, the monitor said.

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