Germany’s economy is carried on the Rhine’s shrinking back

By Elisabeth Braw

“Deep river, my home is over Jordan,” the eponymous spiritual goes. The Jordan River, alas, is not very deep anymore: In recent decades, it has lost a massive 90 percent of its flow thanks to dams and other constructions and now climate change. And it’s not the only flowing torrent that’s now more of a trickle. In the Rhine, the artery of large chunks of European industry, water levels are now so low that global supply chains are under threat. That’s another wake-up call—because if the world is to tackle climate change, we need to move cargo from polluting road traffic to climate-friendly rivers.

This week, the Rhine’s water level near the picturesque town of Kaub—which all ships traveling to the industry-heavy southwest of Germany need to pass through—reached a mere 0.7 meters (2.3 feet). That’s far below the 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) most river ships require as their bare minimum and still under the 0.78-meter mark below which a river is classified as low-water.

In Germany, river transport accounts for 6 percent of the total volume of transportation but plays an outsized role in transportation industry-bound raw materials. Some 30 percent of coal, crude oil, and natural gas and around 20 percent of coking plant and petroleum products are shipped on rivers, economists Martin Ademmer, Nils Jannsen, and Saskia Mösle of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy noted in a 2020 report. The Rhine transports the vast majority of this cargo, along with, among other things, 11 percent of chemicals used by German industry. German manufacturing now faces shortages of these critical goods. Paradoxically, coal—which is experiencing a sudden renaissance as Germany tries to find alternatives to Russian energy—now can’t get where it’s needed on time.

But it’s worse news still for the countless consumers and businesses in the heart of Europe whose livelihoods rely on river transport. As a result of the low water level, “we’re currently only allowed to transport 50 percent of the volumes we’re capable of transporting,” Roberto Spranzi, the head of Germany’s river transport association, told the German Press Agency. At full load, ships go deeper into the water. Even if the water doesn’t go any lower than the current level, that still means half of all the planned cargo deliveries won’t be taking place. That’s a lot of critical goods unable to reach their destinations.

Read full story

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *