Deep trouble for EU shipping push as Rhine River runs dry
Water levels for Western Europe’s most important waterway are falling fast, posing a problem for German industry.
Grand plans to shift freight off roads and onto rivers don’t much matter if Western Europe’s most important waterway is running too shallow for ships to pass.
Water levels on the Rhine, Europe’s major inland river connecting mega-ports at Rotterdam and Antwerp to Germany’s industrial heartland and landlocked Switzerland, are precipitously low, making it hard for shippers to transfer coal, components, chemicals and other commodities to factories and power plants along the river.
That’s a pressing problem for major industries, but it also puts a damper on EU plans to increase the movement of goods along waterways by 25 percent by 2030 and by 50 percent by 2050 as part of efforts to slash emissions from the transport sector — a laggard when it comes to meeting climate targets
Persistently low rainfall means the depth of the Rhine was down to 49 centimeters on Sunday at the gauge tower at Kaub, a bottleneck on the 1,200-kilometer river located between Wiesbaden and Koblenz and widely considered to be the most important point for navigators assessing depth.
“If it stays dry then we are going to have a big problem,” said Marc Daniel Heintz, the head of the secretariat at the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR), an organization through which countries coordinate efforts to cut pollution.
Over coffee on the first floor of the ICPR’s office overlooking the Rhine in Koblenz, just meters from where it meets the Moselle, Heintz said it would now take prolonged, torrential rainfall to meaningfully increase the depth.
Such downpours aren’t forecasted for the next two weeks, and levels at the Kaub chokepoint are already lower than they were at the same point in 2018 ahead of that October’s historic low of 25 centimeters.
The water was so low then that the river was closed to ship traffic for weeks, forcing companies to switch their freight to railways and roads. But that’s costly and inefficient since it takes hundreds of trucks or train cars to handle cargoes that can be loaded onto a single barge . . . .
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