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The level of the Rhine is falling due to heat – Germany is running out of barges

It’s hot and there’s no rain, so levels in important transport rivers like the Rhine are falling. This is extremely inconvenient for cargo ships. “Everything that can swim is in motion,” says Jens Schwanen, CEO of the Federal Association of German Inland Shipping (BDB), according to an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. But when water levels drop, ships can take less cargo, further reducing capacity. The employment situation is so good for two main reasons: On the one hand, coal importers are asking for huge amounts of cargo because coal-fired power plants are supposed to run more as a result of the natural gas crisis. At the same time, and this is also a consequence of the Ukrainian war, grain from Ukraine will not only be distributed by railways and trucks, but also by ships, which in turn connects the issue of large-capacity shipping.

A critical bottleneck is Kaub near Koblenz. The level has dropped to 0.70 meters within two weeks. “But we need more than 1.20 meters,” says Jürgen Osterhage of the Coal Importers’ Association. The coal ships supplying the power plants on the Rhine could only take 30 to 40% of the normal load. This is best distinguished between Holland and Duisburg. According to Steag, which operates several coal-fired power plants in the Ruhr region, there have been no supply difficulties so far.

“There is no emergency fleet”

“Now, low water is a natural thing and whining about it is not helpful,” says Schwanen, but he criticizes cargo ships that they could have learned faster from previous low water situations, which threatens to repeat this summer. The last dramatic situation was not so long ago: In 2018, the Rhine had little water for so long that even the supply of fuel to service stations was at risk at times. The chemical industry in particular was severely affected, with many important factories along the Rhine. Steel companies also had to stop production, the economic damage was in the billions at the time.

One thing in particular has changed since then: water levels are now predicted more reliably and over a longer period of time. This makes it easier for ship owners to adapt to the situation. “But that only helps to a limited extent because we don’t have an emergency fleet available,” says Schwanen. There are more than 2,000 ships in the German shipping register alone, but Dutch-flagged vessels often form the majority, especially on the Lower Rhine. The Rhine is already full and it is difficult to find more capacity. However, the steel industry with its blast furnaces and the chemical industry with its time-sensitive production processes are particularly dependent on regular deliveries. “But in such situations, customers from the chemical, petroleum or steel industries are also forced to delay.

At the Association of the Chemical Industry (VCI), the drop in levels has not yet affected member companies, it was told in response to a question from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Basically, the logistics situation is naturally strained, the railways are overwhelmed and there is a shortage of truck drivers. This means that the alternatives are very narrow. Barges are an important means of transport for the chemical industry. Of the nearly 70 million tons of chemicals transported by industry each year, 11% is transported by barge.

Dams would be even more expensive

Some chemical companies, such as the BASF group, are experimenting with low-level vessels. Last year, the Association for European Inland Navigation and Waterways presented a report on “Strengthening the resilience of waterways in exceptional low water situations”, which also analyzed the proposals made to improve the situation, especially after the long-term low water level in 2018. According to it, at least 300 low-level vessels are needed to supply the industry, but so far there are only a few – and they are expensive to build, an investment of more than 1 billion euros, the association estimates.

Even more expensive and possibly more controversial would be the dams on the Rhine, which the inland shipping lobby itself describes only as “ultima ratio”. In addition to generally deeper channels, the report also suggests defining special low-water corridors, especially when water levels drop, which could then be used mainly for vessels sailing against the direction of the flow. Because they have a stronger draft than ships that go with the current.

As everywhere where traffic is involved, major infrastructure projects in shipping are often a major nuisance for the industry. In Sankt Goar, for example, the waterways need to be deepened. The project was originally supposed to be completed in 2030, but is now expected to take at least three years longer. “One is in the process of being implemented, but it’s taking an incredibly long time,” Schwanen complains. These projects initially do not help, especially for events that occur regularly, such as water shortages in summer.

The concern is far from new: In the final report of the Federal Ministry of Transport on the “Impact of climate change on waterways and shipping in Germany” (Kliwas), which was presented in 2015, it was determined that the low water level for the inland shipping will continue long after 2050; due to its “relatively long duration” it will be more important than flooding.

“We need to be prepared for a more extreme change in water levels overall, meaning there are more intense periods of low water and more severe flooding,” says Schwanen, CEO of the Federal Inland Shipping Association (BDB). This is also indicated by other scientific studies.

Source: Capital

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