Rhine River hits new low before making slight recovery

The water level at Kaub, a key point on the River Rhine west of Frankfurt, hit a new low at the start of this week.

The marker at Kaub briefly dropped to 30cm early on Monday August 15th before recovering slightly according to the latest German government data. It is forecast to fluctuate between 31cm and 33cm as the week progressed.

Rhine Waterways and Shipping Authority (WSA) said that “the current water levels on the Middle and Lower Rhine are currently at an exceptionally low level for this time of year”.

“Ships are still running, but fewer of them and with lighter loads,” the WSA said, noting that “traffic has not yet come to a complete standstill.”

Two coal-fired power plants reported that they had been required to reduce operating levels due to the inability to move fuel on the river. Shipping costs were reported in places to have risen as much as five times normal due to the limits on the river.

Many barges find it uneconomical to transit past Kaub when the water level there is at 40cm or less. Shallow-draft barges generally require levels between 30cm and 35cm to operate. The larger, fully loaded vessels need at least 150cm for safe operations.

The marker is a reference for navigability rather than the actual depth of the river. A 30cm level corresponds to an effective water depth of 1.6 metres.

Last week shipping company Contargo, which also operates terminals, said that a drop at Kaub to below 40cm would prompt it to largely discontinue its barge business on the middle and upper Rhine.

Neska Container Line BV said on August 11th that its barges could not call at Cologne and Dusseldorf — downriver from Kaub — and that inland waterway barge handling would be possible again from around August 19th.

Some companies, anticipating that shallower drafts could become the “new normal”, given that this is the second time in four years that the levels of the Rhine have been reduced to “unusually” low levels, are making longer-term adjustments. Chemical maker BASF SE later this year plans to put into service a new, low-water, vessel that can haul 650 tons of cargo even if the Kaub level is as little as 30cm

BASF said that the 650 tons would be about 25% of its capacity in average low water. Its current vessel can haul 200 tons of liquefied gases at 30cm.

The measured water-level at Kaub hasn’t been this low at this time of year since at least 1990, according to official data compiled by Bloomberg. However, in late 2018 the level fell as low as 24cm.

The German government said it was considering emergency measures if water levels continued to fall. In a document seen by Reuters, they report the government will prioritize the movement of energy on the German railways including gasoline and product to heat homes.