COLOGNE, Germany (AP) – Water levels on the Rhine could reach a critical low point in the coming days, German officials said Wednesday, making it increasingly difficult to transport goods – including coal and gasoline – as drought and an energy crisis grip Europe
Weeks of dry weather have turned several of Europe’s major waterways into trickles, creating a headache for German factories and power plants that rely on deliveries by ship and making an economic slowdown increasingly likely. The transport of goods by inland waterways is more important in Germany than in many other Western European countries, according to Capital Economics.
“This is particularly the case for the Rhine, whose nautical bottleneck at Kaub has a very low water level, but which remains navigable for small-draft vessels,” said Tim Alexandrin, a spokesman for the German transport ministry.
Authorities predict that the water level at Kaub will dip below the 40 centimeter (16 inch) mark early Friday and continue to fall through the weekend. Although this is still higher than the record low of 27 centimeters seen in October 2018, many large ships could struggle to safely pass the river at that point, about halfway along the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz.
“The situation is quite dramatic, but still not as dramatic as in 2018,” said Christian Lorenz, a spokesman for the German logistics company HGK.
From France and Italy, Europe is having a hard time with dry periodsshrinking waterways and heat waves that are becoming more severe and frequent due to climate change. Low water levels are another blow to industry in Germany, which is struggling with shrinking natural gas flows who have sent the prizes.
Because of the lack of water, ships carrying salt up the Rhine from Heilbronn to Cologne that normally carry 2,200 metric tons (2,425 US tons) of cargo can only carry about 600 tons, he said.
“Of course we hope that shipping will not be stopped, but we saw in 2018 that when the water level became very low, the gas stations suddenly had no more fuel because ships could not pass through,” said Lorenz.
Authorities are taking steps to move more freight traffic on the rail network and, if necessary, give priority, said Alexandrin, spokesman for the Ministry of Transport.
Those other options will be more expensive and last longer, with the higher costs making it impossible in some cases, said Andrew Kenningham, chief European economist for Capital Economics.
The problems with river transport are not problematic for German industry because of shrinking flows and rising prices for natural gas, he said, with Russia reducing supplies to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20% of capacity. But the woes on the Rhine may still take a small bite out of economic growth if they last until December, adding a little to already high inflation and led industrial production to drop slightly, the economist said.
But with Capital Economics already seeing flat economic growth in Germany in the third quarter and a contraction in the last three months of the year, “the low water level in the Rhine just makes a recession even more likelyKenningham said.
HGK and other shipping companies are preparing for a “new normal” in which low water levels will become more common as global warming exacerbates droughts, and water along the length of the Rhine from the Swiss Alps to the Firing off the North Sea.
“There is no denial of climate change and the industry is adapting,” Lorenz said.
All new ships ordered by the company will be built with a view to making them suitable for low water levels on the Rhine, he said.
Jordans reported from Berlin.
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