Rhine close to running dry in German energy nightmare

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Transport vessels cruise past the partially dried riverbed of the Rhine river in Bingen, Germany - WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS
Transport vessels cruise past the partially dried riverbed of the Rhine river in Bingen, Germany - WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

Germany’s Rhine river will become impassable for barges carrying coal, oil and gas later this week, in a devastating blow to factories upriver.

Levels at Kaub, a key point along the waterway west of Frankfurt, are predicted to fall to below 40cm on Friday, according to the German Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration.

At that chokepoint, the river becomes effectively impassable for many barges, which use the Rhine to move a range of goods including coal, oil and gas.

Water levels will then fall further to 37cm on Saturday, officials warned.

The river runs from Switzerland through France and Germany to the Netherlands, where it joins the North Sea.

House boats are perched on a drying side channel of the Waal River due to drought in Nijmegen, Netherlands - PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/REUTERS
House boats are perched on a drying side channel of the Waal River due to drought in Nijmegen, Netherlands - PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/REUTERS

It is a vital supply line for several major companies, providing transit and plentiful water for engine cooling. A typical barge has the same capacity as more than 100 lorries. Rental rates for the vessels have soared as navigation becomes more difficult.

These include BASF, the German blue-chip chemicals giant which has a huge facility at Ludwigshafen, electricity generator RWE and Swiss chemicals group Novartis.

Last week, Uniper, one of Germany’s largest gas companies, warned there could be an “irregular operation” at one of its coal-fired plants due to disruptions on the Rhine.

In 2018, a summer heatwave took Kaub levels to a record low of 25cm in the autumn, taking 0.2 percentage point off German growth. Economists warn this year could be even worse.

Bicycles that reemerged due to the low water level in a side channel of the Waal River - PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/REUTERS
Bicycles that reemerged due to the low water level in a side channel of the Waal River - PIROSCHKA VAN DE WOUW/REUTERS

Deutsche Bank has warned this could deal a further economic blow to Germany, which is already facing a recession as Moscow squeezes gas supplies.

BASF – which took a €250m hit from 2018’s low levels – has ordered a special barge adapted for low water levels. Steel giant Thyssendrupp has put together a crisis team, which is meeting daily to monitor the situation, according to Bloomberg.

The heatwave is also affecting other rivers across the continent. French energy giant EDF said last week that output from two of its nuclear power stations would be knocked due to high water temperatures, while the Danube – which slices from central Europe to the Black Sea – is also drying up.

The Rhine's water level at Kaub is so low much of the riverbed rock is exposed - BEN KILB/BLOOMBERG
The Rhine's water level at Kaub is so low much of the riverbed rock is exposed - BEN KILB/BLOOMBERG