Water levels fall again on Rhine – impassability a possibility

Water levels on the Rhine River are reportedly close falling to the point at which it would effectively be closed to commercial traffic.

The river at Kaub, Germany was reported by the German Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration as being set to drop to 47cm by the weekend of August 6th/7th, from 60cm as at the start of the week. If the level falls to 40cm the route would become effectively unusable for commercial shipping.

Navigation authorities do not close the Rhine during low water periods. Vessel owners must themselves decide whether they can operate safely. Once the level falls to 40cm, one reaches a point where empty barges can still travel up and down the river, but not with more than a minuscule amount of cargo on them.

The Rhine travels for nearly 1,300 km from Switzerland to the North Sea and carries heating oil, gasoline, coal and other commodities.

Germany and Switzerland, along with much of Europe, was already facing challenges with attempts to build up energy reserves ahead of winter, and the loss of the Rhine as a transport route, even for a couple of weeks, would have an impact on both countries.

The low levels have already been disrupting trade flows, limiting the loads on barges to half or less of their normal capacity. Switzerland, which uses the Rhine to import oil-based fuel, was already releasing stock from its strategic reserves – as is Austria.

The low water is impacting the shipment downriver of some components used to make gasoline for blending, which is hitting refinery capacity, according to energy experts.

The cost of transport for liquid cargoes by barge between Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Karlsruhe in Germany had risen to about €78 ($80) a tonne by the end of last week, July 29th, from about €20 a tonne in June before water levels fell.