The German Rhine, one of Europe’s main waterways, is days away from being closed to commercial traffic due to very low levels caused by drought, authorities and industry have warned.
Crucially, the looming crisis could lead energy companies to cut production, said one of the country’s biggest gas companies.
Companies located along the Rhine or dependent on it to transport or receive goods warn that they have been forced to reduce their activities and drastically reduce loads – and are now on the verge of having to close part of production if freighters are no longer able to access the river.
The Rhine, which stretches about 760 miles from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, is the second largest river in Central and Western Europe after the Danube. The majority of the nearly 200 million tons of goods shipped on German rivers – from coal to car parts, from food to chemicals – is transported on the Rhine.
Its dangerously low levels are reminiscent of the drought that shut it down for around six months in 2018. The Cologne Waterways and Shipping Authority said the “unusually low levels” for this time of year mean that the barges have had to reduce their cargo “in order to navigate the river”. This increases prices and reduces the speed at which goods can be transported.
As Germany braces for a winter of energy rationing due to an 80% reduction in gas flows from Russia, the major concern is the ripple effect that exhausted river traffic could have on energy production.
Uniper, Germany’s largest Russian gas distributor, which already recently needed a multibillion-euro bailout from the German government to prevent it from collapsing, warned of potential ‘erratic performance’ for the next month at Staudinger-5, its coal, 510 megawatt power station east of Frankfurt – a major tributary of the Rhine – due to interruptions in coal supplies along the river.
As demand for coal has increased, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck has decided to recommission coal-fired power plants, which had been mothballed but are now seen as a temporary solution to help Europe Germany to wean itself off Russian gas.
Industry bosses in Germany, seeking to avoid recession amid high energy prices and runaway inflation, now pay almost as much attention to daily river levels as to the amount of gas coming in. from Russia (20%, or 33 million cubic meters) .
Stored gas levels at nearly two dozen facilities across the country are of more immediate concern, rising to 70.39% on Thursday.
Low water levels usually occur much later in the year, but reflect the drought conditions affecting large parts of Europe.
This week, the French energy supplier EDF announced that it was temporarily reducing production at its nuclear power plants on the Rhône and Garonne rivers, as heat waves limited its ability to use water from the river to cool the plants.
Meanwhile in the UK, the source of the River Thames dried up on Thursday for the first time since records began due to a lack of rainfall.
To take a snapshot of the situation in Germany, in Cologne, the largest city on the Rhine, areas of the river have been reduced to a trickle. The overall level on Thursday was 1.03 meters with experts saying there was little chance of change in the coming weeks and the level could fall further due to the lack of rainfall.
According to the drainage operations of the city of Cologne, ships wishing to navigate the river have a total height of 111 centimeters plus the water level of 103 cm – in other words, only 2.14 meters below their keel . Any vessel deeper than that risked becoming stuck, they warned, adding that captains were solely responsible for the safe maneuvering of their vessels.
According to Christian Lorenz of Ports and Freight Traffic Cologne, much of the freight traffic had already halved its cargo in order to be light enough to travel safely.
“As a rule, a freighter carrying salt from Heilbronn would carry 2,100 tonnes on board, but on Monday that had to be reduced to just 900 tonnes due to the river level,” he told German media. To compensate for the reduced capacity, companies are faced with the more expensive options of using more ships or reloading onto trucks or freight trains – but both are currently in short supply. Ships, in particular, are in demand in the Black Sea to deliver grain from Ukraine, which is now possible for the first time in months.
Plans are underway for building barges and low-lying vessels as well as deepening the Rhine and better predicting water levels following the 2018 crisis, but these measures are slow to materialize.
The timing of the Rhine narrowing could hardly be worse from an economic point of view. Many businesses that rely on it have scrambled to repair supply chains massively disrupted by the pandemic and are trying to urgently replenish their stocks.
Environmentalists are also sounding the alarm as rising temperatures are leading to a high concentration of pollutants that can be harmful to flora, fauna and fish.
Swimmers have also been warned to stay away from the river as reduced water levels can lead to narrower channels and stronger currents.