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CLIMATE CRISIS

IN PICTURES: German summer heatwave causes River Rhine to dry up

A hot, dry July made worse by climate change has caused water levels on the Rhine to sink dramatically. It raises the risk that the German economy could run aground as shipping along the river becomes harder.

Rhine water art
The art project "Dedicated to the water" shows declining water levels in Mainz along the Rhine. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

The prospect of severe, longer-term limits to traffic spells a new headache for the industries lined up on the river’s banks and threatens to further strain Germany’s efforts to wean itself off Russian energy imports as coal counts among key cargo moved on the waterway.

Roberto Spranzi, boss of DTG, a shipping cooperative, says the volumes that his fleet can carry are already limited by the unusually low water levels.

“At the moment we have a capacity where, we have to use three or four vessels where we would normally need one,” Spranzi tells AFP.

Pointing at the worrying ebb at the entrance to the inland port of Duisburg in western Germany, Spranzi notes that “currently it’s at 1.70 metres (5.6 feet) In theory, the normal water level is over two metres”.

Ship on the river rhine

A ship lies on the dried-out bank of the Rhine in Düsseldorf. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Federico Gambarini

Further up the river in Kaub, a noted bottleneck for shipping where the Rhine runs narrow and shallow, the reference level is forecast to go below 40 centimetres by the end of the week and squeeze traffic further.

As of Friday, the water levels had sunk to 42 centimetres – five centimetres lower than the previous day. 

“We supply factories on the Rhine with their raw materials. When that’s not possible any more — or less often — that’s a threat to German industry, too,” Spranzi says.

READ ALSO: How the Rhine’s low water levels are impacting Germany

Coal power

Around four percent of freight in Germany is carried via its waterways, including the Rhine, which winds its way from Switzerland, along the border with France, through Germany’s industrial heartland and the Netherlands to the sea.

As Berlin turns to mothballed coal power capacity to plug the gap after Russia curtailed its energy deliveries, the Rhine has taken on added
significance as a key artery for coal transport.

But the sinking water level has already led energy providers to warn they may have to limit output.

A ship travels along the dried-up Rhine near the Bayer factory in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Reichwein

Uniper has said the low level of the Rhine may lead to the “irregular operation” of two of its coal plants into September.

EnBW, which runs sites in the southwestern region of Baden-Wurttermberg, has warned that deliveries of the fuel could be restricted.

The dwindling waters have seen “transport costs per tonne rise”, EnBW said in a statement, adding that it had preemptively built stocks of coal earlier in the year.

Alternative routes were available — either by road or rail — but capacity was “tight”, EnBW said.

The Rhine freight restrictions have added to the supply chain disruption seen by industry and increased the risk of scarcity.

Low water levels on the Rhine

Dry ground next to the depleted Rhine in Mainz. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

Across southern Germany, a shortage of fuel at the pump has been traced back to the dry weather, among other factors.

“Low water levels on the Rhine mean that in this area very important transportation of oil products, such as petrol, diesel or heating oil can’t operate as normal,” says Alexander von Gersdorff, spokesman for the German energy and fuel industry lobby.

READ ALSO: Germany plans 1,000 extra drinking water fountains

Sinking water levels on the Rhine

An aerial view of the Rheinkniebrücke shows dried-out banks and sinking water levels. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch

‘Much earlier’

A 2018 drought, which saw the Rhine’s reference depth at Kaub fall as low as 25 centimetres in October, shaved 0.2 percent off German GDP that year, according to Deutsche Bank Research.

“The low levels have come much earlier this time,” Deutsche Bank Research economist Marc Schattenberg tells AFP.

“If the problems we are now observing last longer (than in 2018), the loss of economic value becomes all the more serious.”

Industrial heavyweights stationed along the Rhine rely on the waterway to ferry goods to and from their sites.

Duisburg-based conglomerate ThyssenKrupp said in a statement it had “taken measures” to assure its supplies of raw materials.

The steelworks from Thyssenkrupp in Duisburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Strauch

The chemical giant BASF, whose Ludwigshafen base sits south of the Kaub choke-point, said its production had not yet been limited by the low water levels, but warned that it could not rule out “reductions for specific units in the coming weeks”.

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ENERGY

Germany to thrash out details of €200 billion energy support package

Chancellor Olaf Scholz is meeting with Germany’s 16 state leaders on Tuesday to work out the details of the country’s energy relief packages and a cap on the price of gas. But a few questions remain open.

Germany to thrash out details of €200 billion energy support package

What’s happening?

With power bills more than doubling in some cases, German federal and state leaders have decided more support is needed. Chancellor Scholz last week announced a €200 billion package to cushion the blow for people in Germany yet further.

One of the most expensive planned measures is a Gaspreisdeckel – or a cap on the price of gas households would pay this winter.

That comes on top of a combined €100 billion in relief spending over three spending packages already passed in the Bundestag. The last one, amounting to €65 billion, was passed only about a month ago.

Those packages are paying or have paid everything from the popular €9 nationwide public transport ticket, a VAT cut on gas bills, to one-off energy and cost of living relief payments.

But that wasn’t enough for many state leaders, who began calling for a gas price cap.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Everything Germany is doing to help relieve rising energy costs

These calls also come from across the German political spectrum.

Both Markus Söder, the Bavarian premier from the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) and Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey of the Social Democrats, have been particularly vocal in their support for a gas price cap.

Is a gas price cap coming?

Households in Germany are very likely to see a cap on their gas bills of some sort this winter.

What’s not clear yet – and what federal and state leaders are hammering out Tuesday – is how precisely it will work in practice, when it might come in, how long it will last, and how it’ll be paid for.

The SPD-led government of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and national Green co-leader Ricarda Lang want a gas price cap that would cover 80 percent of what households use.

German state leaders attend the conference on Wednesday.

German state leaders attend a conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

Under a plan like that, 80 percent would be termed a “basic consumption” requirement and capped in price for the average consumer. The other 20 percent would float according to the market rate for gas – to help encourage people to still save energy.

Söder’s Bavarian CSU has previously advocated for a 75/25 percent split between the capped portion and the floating portion to encourage more energy saving.

The government is then on the hook to pay the rest.

READ ALSO: Why did Germany make a U-turn on gas levy – and what do the new plans mean?

The cap is likely to last for the winter months at least, although this depends on Tuesday’s government talks, which also cover the thorny issue of how the government intends to pay for the cap.

The German Institute for Economic Research’s Marcel Fratzscher told broadcaster RTL and ntv last week that a cap alone could cost anywhere between €30 and €50 billion.

The Scholz government wants to pay for this primarily by running up government debt, something Finance Minister Christian Lindner has reservations about, as it would mean suspending Germany’s constitutional debt brake.

The federal state governments would be expected to pay for at least some of it, and any disputes Tuesday could hamper an agreement—potentially delaying the start of any cap or further relief measures.

A €9 ticket successor and relief for small businesses. What else do Germany’s states want?

Germany’s 16 federal state leaders are also bringing in a list of other measures they want to see from Scholz’s promised €200 billion in relief spending.

Chief among these is the unresolved question of how to pay for the planned successor to Germany’s popular €9 nationwide public transport ticket this summer.

Politicians are floating the idea of a more expensive €49 ticket, although the price could reach above €60, depending on how much money federal states are willing to kick in for it along with the federal government.

READ ALSO: Germany to set out plans for €49 transport ticket in October

North-Rhine Westphalia premier Hendrik Wüst is also calling for the federal government to make more money available for refugee housing, particularly as around 1 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Germany since the Russian invasion began in February.

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