Kaub: it is towards this small town in Rhineland-Palatinate, located a few kilometers upstream from the famous statue of Loreley, that many German industrialists have been watching with anguish in recent days. At this critical point of circulation on the Rhine, the water level has continued to drop since the spring to come very close to the limit of commercial navigability.
As in 2018, the drought considerably reduced the flow of the first commercial river artery in Europe. Between Rotterdam, the main port of the continent, and Switzerland transit on average each year more than 300 million tons of goods (coal, petroleum products, chemicals, ores). The river port of Duisburg, at the confluence of the Rhine and the Ruhr, is one of the busiest in the world.
Rising transport costs
To cope with the already tense situation, the boats are, according to the cargoes, about three less loaded than usual. This increases the number of ships needed and therefore increases the cost of transportation in general. In the case of coal transported to power stations, this increase is reflected in the price of electricity, which has already jumped over the past year and largely fueled inflation in the euro zone . The energy company Uniper has indicated that its coal-fired power station Staudinger-5, in Hesse, would even experience operational “irregularities”.
The possibilities of transfer to road or rail are limited. The logistics companies VTG and Hoyer, specializing in the transport of gas, chemicals and petroleum products, have already said that they are at the limit of their capacities, in particular due to a shortage of labour. It takes about 150 trucks to replace a large Rhine barge. The current difficulties of the rail network, the consequence of many years of underinvestment, come at the worst time, while the major global supply chains have been disrupted since the start of the pandemic.
Consequences beyond Germany
The difficulties on the Rhine do not only concern Germany, but also Switzerland, which had to release 6.5% of its strategic oil reserves to ensure the supply of its economy, as well as the Czech Republic and Austria , which receive fewer refined products from Germany. The waters are also very low on the other major German commercial rivers (Elbe, Weser, Oder).
These new disappointments come as the German economy stagnated in the second quarter . The 2018 Rhine traffic restrictions were estimated to have cost Germany 0.4% of GDP in the fourth quarter of that year.
The major industrial groups have certainly adapted since , knowing that climatologists predict a multiplication and intensification of droughts. The Alps also tend to receive less snow in winter, and the Rhine therefore absorbs less meltwater.
The chemical giant BASF, based in Ludwigshafen, therefore had three extra-flat barges developed and ordered, but only one is in service today. The company, which has estimated the losses caused by the low waters of 2018 at 250 million euros, has also reviewed its cooling systems to reduce its dependence on water from the Rhine. The conglomerate ThyssenKrupp has increased its storage capacity to overcome shortages.
The federal government has also drawn up an action plan aimed at increasing the predictability of the river’s flow, streamlining administrative procedures, adapting equipment, and developing the river. It is thus planned to dig the bed of the Rhine, between Wiesbaden and Sankt Goar. But these works pose problems of execution and would cause negative environmental effects, warn NGOs like BUND.