Posted on August 10, 2022
Low water levels on the Rhine River are threatening further problems for the German industry, which is troubled by high energy costs, disrupted supply chains and inflationary prices.
Minister touts dredging plan as water levels sink
As some ships were unable to traverse the key waterway fully loaded, Transport Minister Volker Wissing called for the river to be dredged to allow for more freight to travel along it. Long term, he said it was necessary “to shift more traffic from road to rail and waterways.”
He said that the planned dredging of the Rhine was the project from a recent German government study into long-term travel strategy “with the best cost-benefit ratio.”
“We need to eliminate bottlenecks on the Rhine at certain points. We need the waterway,” Wissing said. Completion of the “giant project” would take until the early 2030s, he said.
The investment would amount to about €180 million (roughly $183 million), of which around 40% would be for accompanying ecological measures.
As transport minister in Rhineland-Palatinate, Wissing had already campaigned for the deepening of the Rhine between St. Goar and Mainz. This would allow ships to carry around 200 tons more of cargo. “That’s equivalent to 10 to 15 loaded trucks,” he had said at the time.
Levels dropping earlier than usual
Normally, when water levels fall below a critical mark for a 30-day period, industrial production decreases, Nils Jannsen, an economic expert at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), explained.
“In 2018, when navigation on the Rhine was last hampered by low water for an extended period, industrial production decreased by about 1.5% at its peak,” Jannsen said. “It could be an additional burden that shipping is a relatively important means of transporting energy commodities.”
The low water levels are also emerging earlier than is typical, with the lowest water levels typically recorded later in the year, in September or October.
The water level is particularly low at a narrow part of Kaub near Koblenz, currently at roughly 56 centimeters (less than 2 feet) in depth. However, ships need about 1.5 meters to be able to sail fully loaded.
“We continue to sail, but can only load about 25 to 35 percent of the ship’s capacity,” said the director of the DTG shipping cooperative, Roberto Spranzi, which operates about 100 ships on the Rhine.
“That means customers often need three ships to move their cargo, instead of just one.”
The authorities do not close the river at low water. They leave it up to ship operators to decide whether or not they want to continue navigating the Rhine.
“We will continue as long as it is possible to navigate,” Spranzi said.
Vessel capacity is already tight, he said, as demand has increased.
One reason, he said, is that Germany wants to increase the generation of power from coal to prepare for reduced gas supplies from Russia.
Heavy impact on industry giants
Ships cannot be loaded with full capacity, making the cost of transport go up
The Rhine is an important shipping route for raw materials such as grain, chemicals, minerals, coal and oil products including fuel oil.
Companies are keeping a close eye on its water levels and the potential impact on their operations.
A spokesperson of BASF stated that the chemical corporation might have to slow down production of certain assets in the coming weeks.
The chemical group Evonik and steel conglomerate ThyssenKrupp said that they took measures to ensure their production isn’t at risk for the time being, by loading up on materials that could be impacted by the impossibility of freight traffic.
Energy concern Uniper says there could be irregularities in the production of electricity through the coal power plants in Staudinger in Hessen and Datteln in North Rhine-Westphalia up until the beginning of September as the supply of coal isn’t guaranteed.