by Katja Hoyer
Tuesday, 16
August 2022
Reaction
11:52

Will the Rhine dry up this summer?

Drought is threatening Germany's key industrial artery
by Katja Hoyer
(Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“Water levels” was a byword for boredom during my childhood in Germany. They were read out on the radio after the news in an endless litany of place names and numbers. “That’s about as interesting as water levels,” people would say when they had to endure something exceedingly dull.

These days, water levels in Germany are anything but boring. The extreme and prolonged heat is drying out the country’s rivers fast, disrupting the transport of everything from coal and fuel to grain and paper. Industry captains wait with bated breath to hear if water levels remain high enough for shipping routes to stay navigable.

The River Rhine is particularly vulnerable as Germany’s commercial artery. It connects Europe’s key ports such as Rotterdam with industry, and ultimately consumers. Over 80 per cent of Germany’s domestic shipping happens on the Rhine.

All eyes are on Kaub, a critical point on the Rhine near Frankfurt often used as an indicator for whether the waterway remains navigable for freight ships. According to the Federal Institute for Hydrology, shallow draught vessels are still able to pass at a level of 35-30cm, but if it drops below 30cm, “shipping on the Rhine will stop”. Reported levels on Monday were 32cm.

Companies like Reederei Deymann, whose barges carry coal, grain and diesel, are already feeling the squeeze as the water levels only allow it to partially load the ships. Some are currently only at 20 per cent capacity. Deymann’s Managing director Hendrik Stöhr told Spiegel magazine that “only the old hands” among his skippers dare navigate the shallow waters. “We look at the next few weeks with great concern.”

There is huge frustration in the industry with the lack of political will to do something about this recurring crisis. The last drought in 2018, which saw record lows in water levels on the Rhine, caused a recession of 1.5 per cent in German industrial production. Thyssen-Krupp, which produces steel in Duisburg and needs coal and iron ore shipped to it on the Rhine, made losses in the hundreds of millions.

“We have been asking for the critical points to be deepened for over 20 years,” an industry representative told Spiegel. But a spokesman of the parliamentary Green Party argued that such demands reflect “short-term thinking” and that any deepening of the Rhine needs to be “limited to an absolute minimum”. Wary of such criticism from green activists and politicians, the government has shown little enthusiasm to develop the Rhine and other waterways.

But with this outlook, Germany’s Greens are entirely at odds with the EU’s plan to slash carbon emissions by “increasing transport by inland waterways and short sea shipping by 25% by 2030, and by 50% by 2050”. Something will have to give. If we want to future-proof comparatively green modes of transport, then the infrastructure for them will need to be expanded.

The war in Ukraine, increasing conflict with China, supply chain problems and other issues have highlighted the vulnerability of a German economic model that had once seemed invincible. It will take investment and a major rethink. There couldn’t be a more iconic place to start rebuilding German industrial strength than the Rhine.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
17 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
1 month ago

I guess the low water levels must be due to a few weeks of very dry weather and not the 10 dams along the Rhine, probably storing water for electricity when required due to all the self-inflicted crisis that Germany has inflicted upon itself.

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 month ago
Reply to  Antony Hirst

Ha! Must admit my first thought was whether they could build more dams.

Doug Pingel
Doug Pingel
1 month ago
Reply to  Christian Moon

More Groins would be cheaper. Dredging might help but you might make the water disappear downstream faster.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 month ago

If only there was a word for the happiness I feel on witnessing the misfortune of another…

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Mmm … epicaricacy?

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 month ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

Huh. Wasn’t familiar with that one, nice.

Hiroki Negishi
Hiroki Negishi
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

You mean the word that is of appropriately German origin. Schadenfreude?

David Jennings
David Jennings
1 month ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

very droll.

Andrew Vavuris
Andrew Vavuris
1 month ago

Is it really in our best interest to be tied so closely with Communist China respecting critical manufacturing and the commensurate infrastructure? How did we get here?

Adam Bacon
Adam Bacon
1 month ago

There was a fast flowing Rhine at Basel, Switzerland when I was there 2 weeks ago. Presumably the shortfall must be from non Alpine large tributaries in Germany.

What on earth were the Greens thinking, hindering the reliability of water borne trade??

Gary Knight
Gary Knight
1 month ago
Reply to  Adam Bacon

The Greens evidently think dredging is an aggressive encroachment on the natural course of a river: evidence they know nothing about silting or the benefit of restoring a river to its earlier or more pristine state. Taken to extreme, the Green vision will turn all watercourses into boggy wastelands. Their favoured species are mosquitoes and snakes.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 month ago

Interesting article. I haven’t seen the critical situation in German waterways discussed elsewhere. It’s now mid-August. When do the fall/winter rains start in Germany?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Thursday, according to the weather forecast. It is not unknown for the Rhine to be unnavigable in August!

R P
R P
1 month ago

Small point, but the photo at the head of the article is the River Waal at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Downstream of Germany, but not in Germany.

Last edited 1 month ago by R P
Jack van Houwelingen
Jack van Houwelingen
1 month ago
Reply to  R P

Correct! Ik woon al weer vele jaren in Zweden maar volg de binnenvaart een beetje aangezien ik een aantal jaartjes op de Rijn en binnenvaart heb gewerkt.

Jack van Houwelingen
Jack van Houwelingen
1 month ago

The most dull thing for one can be very important to someone else. I live since many years in Sweden, before that I worked on barge’s, the last 3 years as captain/owner on amongst other the Rhine so for me the waterlevel was anything but dull.
We used to load +1 meter on Kaub.

john swint
john swint
1 month ago

The last time the Rhine went dry, atmospheric CO2 was very low but CO2 is the cause now? What do we do with that Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore?