Shrinking river threatens German economy

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By Nathan Morley

Travel Gazette – Record low water levels on one of the continent’s key inland waterways, is having a knock-on effect on the German economy.

A blistering hot summer, combined with low rainfall, has seen water levels on the Rhine fall so much that some of the river is impassable for ships laden with full cargos.

“The long duration of the drought is surprising indeed,” says Dr. Frank Wechsung from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Wechsung says it is an illustration of how extremes might look like in the future. “It is consistent with the general expectation about the increasing frequency of more extreme weather in Germany, like droughts and heavy and intensive rainfall under climate change,” he says.

Some parts of the waterway have dried-up completely along their upper reaches. In Cologne, water levels dropped to 77 just centimeters in mid-October. To make matters worse, in comparison to previous years, the current low-water phase is unusually long.

“The concrete mechanism that leads to this drought in the context of the seen global warming still needs to be explored,” Wechsung added.

For industry, the problem is critical, as cargo ships are sailing with a quarter to one-third of their usual loads. To keep ships as light as possible, only a small amount of tonnage can be hauled up the Rhine and additional vessels are needed to ferry what could usually be shunted in one voyage.

Furthermore, transport costs for a lightly loaded ship or for a fully loaded freighter are the same, prompting some companies to switch to using road and rail.

Experts fear the problem could prompt supply problems between the oil refineries at Rotterdam and southwest Germany. An inland vessel normally transports about 3,000 tons of fuel oil, that’s equivalent to 40 railway wagons or 120 petrol tanker trucks.

“It might affect the cost advantages of waterways like the Rhine for ship-based transport. From that, cost problems might result in particularly for coal-fired thermal power plants along the Rhine and tributaries,” Wechsung said.

The problem is not confined to industry. It has also hit the lucrative tourism industry, famed for its river cruises. The low water level means excursion steamers can no longer call at some towns and cities, and have had to redirect or end the season early. Tour operators have complained of ‘considerable economic damage’.

The lowering water levels have exposed a river bed strewn with rusty bikes, shopping trolleys, bollards, iron pipes, and road signs. Also, a bomb from the Second World War was found, prompting a warning for the public not to search for metal objects in shallow water.

In 2006, a study by German scientists established that global warming was the likely cause of chronic water shortages on central Europe’s river Elbe. The research by the Institute of Climate Impact Research was the result of six decades of continuous observation of water levels on the Elbe.

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