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.
This used to be the river Rhine. This photo was taken north of Ingelheim near Bacharach. I've been following the weather forecast yesterday. No rain at all pic.twitter.com/4vUj4LOoxJ
— IamGermany – Kornelia (@germany_iam) August 9, 2022
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.
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.
Europe's next big enemy: drought!
Water levels in Europe's major rivers, including the Rhine, have dropped to record low levels, meaning ships simply can't get through. Eurostat estimates shipping routes alone add USD 80 billion to Eurozone GDP. The total impact is much bigger. pic.twitter.com/VPEALA0SIU
— jeroen blokland (@jsblokland) August 10, 2022
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.
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.