Rhine could fall below critical limit, endangering industry

COLOGNE, Germany — Water levels on the Rhine could reach critically low levels in the coming days, German officials said on Wednesday, making it increasingly difficult to transport goods, including coal and petrol, as drought and an energy crisis grip Europe.

Weeks of dry weather have turned several of Europe’s major waterways into droplets, causing headaches for German factories and power plants that rely on ship deliveries and making an economic slowdown increasingly likely. Freight transport over inland waterways is more important in Germany than in many other Western European countries, according to Capital Economics.

“This is particularly the case for the Rhine, whose nautical bottleneck at Kaub has very low water levels, but which remains navigable for vessels with a shallow draft,” said Tim Alexandrin, a spokesman for the German Ministry of Transport.

Authorities predict that water levels in Kaub will drop below 40 centimeters (16 in) early Friday and continue to fall over the weekend. While this is still higher than the record low of 27 centimeters in October 2018, many large vessels may struggle to cross the river safely at that spot, about halfway up the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz.

“The situation is quite dramatic, but not as dramatic as in 2018,” said Christian Lorenz, a spokesman for the German logistics company HGK.

From France and Italy, Europe is struggling with dry spells, shrinking waterways and heat waves that are becoming more intense and frequent due to climate change. Low water levels are another blow to industry in Germany, which is struggling with shrinking natural gas flows that have pushed prices up.

Because of the lack of water, ships carrying salt across the Rhine from Heilbronn to Cologne, which would normally carry 2,200 tons (2,425 US tons) of cargo, can only carry about 600 tons, he said.

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“Of course we hope that shipping will not stop, but we saw in 2018 that when the water levels got really low, the gas stations suddenly ran out of fuel because ships couldn’t get through,” Lorenz said.

The authorities are taking steps to get more freight on the rail network and are giving it priority if necessary, said Alexandrin, the spokesman for the Ministry of Transport.

Those other options will be more expensive and take longer, with the higher costs making it impossible in some cases, said Andrew Kenningham, Europe’s chief economist at Capital Economics.

River transport issues are not a problem for German industry as flows and rising natural gas prices are declining, he said, while Russia has reduced supplies to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20% of capacity. But the Rhine woes could take another small bite out of economic growth if they persist through December, add a bit to already high inflation and cause industrial production to fall slightly, the economist said.

But with Capital Economics already forecasting flat economic growth in Germany in the third quarter and contraction in the last three months of the year, “low water levels in the Rhine just make a recession all the more likely,” Kenningham said.

HGK and other shipping companies are preparing for a “new normal” in which low water levels become more common as global warming makes drought more severe and undermines water along the Rhine from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea.

“Climate change is undeniable and the industry is adapting to it,” says Lorenz.

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All new ships ordered by the company will be built to make them suitable for low water levels on the Rhine, he said.


Jordan’s message from Berlin.

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