Low water levels mean Rhine could be shut for cargo

Businesses along the river say drought and record low water levels means they are on the verge of having to shut production.

Businesses along the river Rhine said drought and record low water levels mean they are on the verge of having to shut production.

Germany’s Rhine, one of Europe’s key waterways, is just days away from being closed to commercial traffic. Crucially, the impending crisis could lead energy companies to cut their output, one of the country’s biggest gas companies has said.

Businesses located along or dependent on the Rhine are warning that they have been forced to scale back activities. They may have to close some production if cargo ships are no longer able to access the river.

The Rhine, which runs 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 nearly 200 million tons of cargo shipped on German rivers is transported on the Rhine.

Its dangerously low water levels recall the drought that shut it down for around six months in 2018. Cologne’s Waterway and Shipping Authority has said the unusually low levels mean barges have had to reduce cargo to navigate the river. This increases prices and reduces the speed with which goods can be transported.

Low water levels impact energy markets

Germany is bracing itself for a winter of energy rationing due to an 80% reduction in gas flows from Russia. This is the knock-on effect the depletion in river traffic could have on energy output.

Uniper has cautioned of potentially “irregular performance” for the next month at Staudinger-5, its coal-fired, 510-megawatt power plant east of Frankfurt. It is a major tributary of the Rhine and fears interruptions to coal delivery supplies along the river. Uniper is Germany’s biggest distributor of Russian gas. They already recently needed a multi-billion euro bailout by the German government to prevent collapse.

Germany’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, has decided to re-commission coal-fired power plants. They had previously been mothballed but are now seen as a temporary solution to help Germany wean itself off Russian gas.

Industry bosses in Germany are now paying almost as much attention to daily river levels as they are to the amount of gas flowing from Russia. It is part of their broader business goal seeking to stave off recession amid high energy prices and rampant inflation

Of more immediate concern are the levels of gas stored at almost two dozen facilities around the country, standing on Thursday at 70.39%.

Low water levels usually occur much later in the year. They reflect the drought conditions affecting large parts of Europe.

This week, the French energy supplier EDF said it was temporarily reducing output at its nuclear power stations on the rivers Rhône and Garonne. Heatwaves restricted its ability to use river water to cool the plants.

Low water levels hitting across Europe

Meanwhile, in the UK the source of the River Thames was reported on Thursday to have dried up for the first time since records began due to a lack of rainfall.

Areas of the river in Cologne have been reduced to a mere trickle. On Thursday the overall level was 1.03 metres. Experts said there was little chance of change in the coming weeks. They also warned that these low water levels could fall even further due to lack of rainfall.

According to Cologne’s city drainage operations, ships wanting to navigate the river have a total height allowance of 111 centimetres plus the water level of 103cm – in other words, just 2.14 metres beneath their keel. Any ship deeper than that was likely to get stuck. They added that captains carry the sole responsibility for safely manoeuvring their vessels.

Christian Lorenz, of Ports and Freight Traffic Cologne, said a lot of freight traffic had already reduced its cargo by half in order to be light enough to travel safely.

“Typically a cargo ship carrying salt from Heilbronn would be carrying 2,100 tons on board. On Monday this had to be reduced to just 900 tons due to the river level,” he told German media. To make up for the reduced capacity, companies are facing the more expensive options of either using more ships or reloading on to lorries or goods trains. Both these options are currently in short supply. Ships, in particular, are in demand in the Black Sea to bring grain supplies from Ukraine, now possible for the first time in months.

What is the solution for low water levels?

Plans are under way for the construction of low-lying barges and ships. There are also plans afoot for the deepening of the Rhine, and better forecasting of water levels. However, these measures are slow in being realised.

The timing of the Rhine’s shrinking could hardly be worse from an economic perspective. Many of the businesses dependent on it have been racing to fix supply chains massively interrupted by the pandemic and urgently trying to replenish their stocks.

Environmentalists are also raising the alarm. rising temperatures lead to a high concentration of pollutants which can be damaging to the flora, fauna and fish.

Swimmers have also been warned to keep away from the river. A reduction in water levels can lead to narrower channels and stronger currents.

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