Through the Rhine River, around 6,900 ships transport critical goods such as coal, steel, chemicals, fuel and grain
(AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
The Rhine River is the main trade artery for 80% of the German economy's inland transport of goods, including crude oil and natural gas. Now industry must find new ways to transport cargo, from coal to chemicals, as the increasingly low level of the Rhine disrupts Europe's 'steam engine'.
Last winter's below-average snowfall and melting glaciers mean the river's water level is particularly likely to fall to historic lows, according to Switzerland's federal meteorological service.
When the gauge at Kaubb Pass reaches 40cm or less, it becomes unprofitable for most barges to sail. According to German government data, the depth of the river at the pass west of Frankfurt is expected to drop to 30cm on August 15. Only, in 1990 and 2018, the level of the Rhine at the point had reached particularly low levels. However, this had happened in both cases by the end of October.
Through the river, about 6,900 ships carry critical goods such as coal,
steel, chemicals, fuel and grain. In 2021, an estimated 160 million tons of goods
were transported via the Rhine.
At the same time, the Rhine is also used to transport oil and diesel from ports
Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) in Germany and Switzerland. The disruption of inland oil transport puts 400,000 barrels/day of oil trade at risk. In this context, the aviation industry is also affected, with many companies unable to secure the necessary quantities of jet fuel.
The German government's plans and Switzerland
Political support for the Rhine is unlikely. Plans to ease the navigation of the Rhine have been embroiled in disputes between the three parties in Olaf Soltz's governing coalition. Without legislation to ease the bottlenecks, dredging of the main part of the middle Rhine will not happen until after 2030 at the earliest, according to Germany's Inland Shipping Association BDB.
And there is an additional concern about the government. Since Russia cut gas supplies to Germany, ministers have been relying more on coal-fired power stations. But much of the coal that feeds them is transported by barge. Some cargo is carried on the rail network, but capacity is limited.
In contrast to Germany's slow approach, Switzerland has already dredging to facilitate access to Rhine ports. The plan was established in a 2014 climate report, with approval to be given in 2017 and the project to be completed in February 2019.
With information from Bloomberg