Rhine water levels: Low water levels are putting a strain on the German economy

Status: 08/05/2022 16:02

The heat and lack of rain are causing the water level on the Rhine to drop. Low water can have dramatic economic consequences as the river is one of the country’s most important transport routes.

Drought and heat are causing the Rhine levels to drop. This threatens coal supplies to the Staudinger plants in Hesse and Datteln in North Rhine-Westphalia; The energy concern Uniper may be forced to limit the production of electricity in these power plants in the next few weeks. The company announced this week that electricity production failures could occur until September 7.

Heat waves and a lack of rain have caused the water level on the Rhine to drop for weeks. It has dropped below a meter in several places, though the Rhine is on average two meters deep this time of year. A river over 1,000 kilometers long carries even more water than it did three years ago: in October 2018, the Rhine recorded the lowest water level ever measured. Nevertheless, this year’s lows are already problematic – also because they are now heading towards 2018 levels.

The narrow point of Kaub near Koblenz is particularly affected: the water level there is only 56 centimeters. Ships need a depth of 1.5 meters to pass this bottleneck with a full load. The bottleneck there is important for inland navigation, especially on the route between Koblenz and Bingen.

Prices have increased almost fivefold

The Rhine is one of the most important shipping routes in Germany. Raw materials such as grain, chemicals, minerals, coal and oil products are transported on it by cargo ship. It is unclear how long the freighters will be on the Rhine. Because the authorities don’t shut down the river at low tide as opposed to high tide; they leave it to the shipping companies to decide whether they want to continue sailing the river or not.

“We are continuing, but we can only load around 25 to 35 percent of the vessel’s capacity,” said DTG’s director of shipping co-operative Roberto Spranzi. DTG operates around 100 ships on the Rhine. “This means that customers often need three ships to transport their cargo – instead of one.”

For companies that rely on ship transport, this means significantly higher costs: the spot prices for the tanker from Rotterdam to Karlsruhe south of Kaub have risen to around EUR 94 per tonne. In June, the price per ton was around EUR 20.

Levels should continue to decline

And it could be even more dramatic. The water level in Kaub is expected to be between 30 and 35 centimeters in the coming weeks. Some types of ships can no longer pass through the bottleneck. The companies on the transport route are therefore on standby: according to its own statements, Thyssenkrupp has taken various measures due to the low water level. “Our raw material requirements are now secured on this basis,” says the group.

The Evonik chemical group explained that production continued: “At Evonik, there are currently no significant restrictions to our logistics chains due to the low water levels in the Rhine.” Where it makes sense and is technically possible, Evonik takes precautionary measures, for example when storing raw materials.

Nuclear power plants in Switzerland affected

The situation in Switzerland is already problematic. The low water level and the associated temperature rise in Aare, a tributary of the Rhine, are already influencing the production of electricity in nuclear power plants. Because plants actually take their cooling water from rivers, which is now too warm to cool it down. The energy company Axpo must therefore cut production at the Beznau nuclear power plant by half.

The low water level on the Rhine has an impact not only on the economy but also on the environment. The concentration of pollutants increases and the temperature of the Rhine rises. This can be life threatening, especially for native fish species.

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