Falling water levels on Rhine reach critical level

The falling water levels on the Rhine River could severely restrict traffic between the Lower and Upper Rhine at the town of Kaub as early as Friday August 12th.

The low water levels have already impacted German commerce capacity due to reduced draft for inland traffic. A partial shutdown at Kaub would exacerbate the effect. The country’s economy had already been affected by soaring energy prices and the prospect of an impending cut-off of Russian energy.

The Rhine provides a vital connection between Germany and the Port of Rotterdam. Barges on the Lower Rhine deliver bulk materials to the industrial heartland of Germany, the Rhine-Ruhr region. The port of Duisberg, which serves this trade, is the largest inland port in Europe.

Kaub, a small community upriver of the Rhine-Ruhr near km 530 is where the shallowest section of the Rhine is located and, following the rule of a chain only being as strong as its weakest link, it is the common reference point for the river’s level.

By Friday, German authorities expect that the nominal water level could drop as low as 405mm at Kaub. A dredged channel at the centre of the river has additional depth, but the minuscule reading at the gauge means that the channel is too shallow for most barges in fully-laden condition.

European inland operator HGK spokesman Christian Lorenz told Associated Press that barges carrying bulk salt between Heilbronn on the Neckar tributary and the city of Cologne on the Rhine are carrying about 25 percent of their normal cargo load because of draft restrictions.

Inland navigation has always been important to Germany, but since February it has become more so as it struggles to adapt its economy to the “new normal” of a far harder border with Russia. Germany intentionally abandoned nuclear power several years ago and so coal is taking up much of the slack of the oil embargo on Russia and unreliability of gas supplies. A third of Germany’s coal imports come up the Rhine. The drought is already expected to reduce power output at two coal powerplants over the next month.

Oliver Luksic, Parliamentary State Secretary to the Federal Minister for Digital and Transport, said recently that “in the light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the importance of inland navigation for the supply of goods to our society has become once again more than clear”.

HGK’s Lorenz said that planning for regular bouts of low water was now part of the company’s strategy. The firm will be incorporating designs for shallow draft into its next generation of vessels.