Low levels in European rivers cause logistical troubles
THE Rhine, one of Europe’s main commercial waterways, is expected to become impassable after water levels fell to a new low last week, signaling further turbulence for grain and energy shipments. Ongoing drought across Europe has reduced the river’s main arterial flows to a trickle as Rhine flows rapidly approach those seen in 2018, when it fell to its lowest level since records began .
The Rhine is the cornerstone of the elaborate network of European waterways. The river, connected to the Danube via the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, stretches about 1300 kilometers northwards through the main Swiss and German industrial areas before emptying into the North Sea at the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. -Down.
As a rule, the Rhine reaches its highest water level in spring and early summer and its lowest point in autumn, but this trend is changing rapidly. This year’s river lows arrived more than a month earlier than in 2018 and follow unusually high flows last summer, which also forced shipping to a temporary halt in some areas.
The water level at Kaub, one of the key river crossing points between Wiesbaden and Koblenz west of Frankfurt, fell below 40 centimeters last Friday afternoon, making it impossible for barges carrying cargo to transit wheat, coal, diesel, gasoline and a range of other commodities. River. The Kaub marker is widely regarded as the most important point along the Rhine for navigators to assess water depth.
It comes at a crucial time when grain flows to North Sea ports are increasing due to harvest pressure, and Europe is facing a massive energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine. Recently, Germany has resorted to turning on some of its mothballed coal-fired power plants to ensure that the country retains access to electricity as Russia restricts gas supplies in retaliation for Western sanctions and European support for Ukraine’s war effort.
Germany’s Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration expects water levels along the entire length of the waterway to drop further this week, with drops of 10-15cm predicted at several waypoints keys. While the 14-day forecast calls for rain later this week, the impact on river flows will be minimal and barge navigation will continue to be restricted. German container logistics company Contargo GmbH & Co was forced to suspend most of its inland navigation operations on the Upper and Middle Rhine.
The measured water level is not the actual depth of the stream but rather a marker of navigability. A fully loaded barge requires at least 1.5 meters of water to navigate the river safely, and this can no longer be guaranteed in many places. The barges only sail with half or even a quarter of their normal load in order to safely cross the shallowest parts of the waterway. This ultimately means that deliveries are delayed because the same route has to be traveled multiple times or freight has to be moved on road or rail systems.
But switching to road or rail is expensive and inefficient. A grain barge typically carries around 1,000 tons of wheat when fully loaded. This equates to about 40 truck movements or about 50-70% of a typical train movement, depending on the number of wagons. Coal and chemical barges can transport 2000 or even 3000t. However, the railways are already operating at full capacity and a resurgence in COVID-19 infections has sickened many train and truck drivers. A general labor shortage in Germany exacerbates the logistics problem.
Although the entire river and canal network used for inland navigation throughout Germany is more than 6,500 kilometers long, 80% of the 300 million tonnes of goods transported on the country’s waterways are on the Rhine. This makes it essential for the efficient operation of many businesses and of considerable importance, not only for the German economy but also for the Netherlands and Switzerland.
And the problem is not isolated to the Rhine. Water flows in the Danube have also dropped to extremely low levels in recent weeks, as high temperatures and much below average rainfall have reduced runoff. This not only threatens agricultural production in the countries crossed, but also hinders the flow of grain and vegetable oil shipments from the Ukrainian ports of Reni and Izmail on the Danube to the Romanian port of Constanta.
According to data from the portal of the Danube Channels Information Service, the water level in Tulcea, near where the arm of the river on which the Ukrainian ports are located meets the main body of the Danube, was measured at 51 cm last Friday. This is below the minimum water level standard for safe boating, which is set at 57cm. Therefore, the maximum draft limit for vessels leaving Reni and Izmail to unload at Constanta is currently set at 6.2m, far less than under normal river flows and severely limiting the size of vessels on this route.
Like the Rhine, the Danube is an important transport route for countries that span its 2,857 km length, especially those that are landlocked. It allows them to ship goods to and from Central and South Eastern Europe, as well as downstream to the Black Sea for export. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal also creates an essential trans-European river corridor from the North Sea via the Rhine and the Danube to the Black Sea.
Low water levels interfere with the normal flow of trade and passenger cruises on many parts of the river. Shipping along the Bulgarian section of the Danube has almost come to a standstill, with ships waiting at ports and transit stops for water levels to improve. Serbian authorities report a suspension of river traffic due to low water levels at several shallow water points. Sand dredging has begun along the waterway to deepen the channel and keep ships moving. The story of neighboring Hungary is very similar.
Low river flows and shipping disruptions are just one of Europe’s many challenges this summer. Drought has hit winter crop production of wheat, barley and rapeseed, and this season’s maize crop is wilting in paddocks in many areas. Farm input costs are rising and food inflation is skyrocketing. And all of this comes on top of the European energy crisis triggered by Vladimir Putin’s senseless invasion of Ukraine in February.
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