Rabout a third German coal, crude oil and natural gas, as well as much of its grain and chemicals, travel along inland waterways of one type or another. Traffic on the Rhine, which stretches from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, accounts for around 80%. Hence the persistence of concern about the scorching conditions which, for several weeks, have threatened to stop navigation on the river. The water level near Kaub, a town near the shallowest part of the Rhine, has recently hovered at just around 30cm (see graph). It’s going to take a lot of rain, falling in the right places, to drive that up a lot. To reduce their draft, the barges carry only 15 to 25% of their usual loads. Germany’s most important waterway could still close.
Businesses along the river are jittery. basf, a chemical company, uses barges to move 40% of the raw materials it needs for a gigantic factory in Ludwigshafen. A previous desiccated spell in 2018 cost him 250 million euros ($295 million); he has since invested in new ships that can sail when others run aground. Christine Launert of Thyssenkrupp, a company that must continue to supply a large steel plant in Duisburg with coal and iron ore brought in by river, says that for the moment her company is still in the process of obtaining the goods. But she says there’s no good plan b. Transporting raw materials by road or rail makes no sense for the environment or the economy, she says.
Businessmen say politicians have neglected Germany’s waterways. Federal funding for them will decrease in 2023, compared to this year. When the German public takes an interest in freight, it is generally to denounce the chronic problems of db cargo, a railway company operated by the State Railways. “But our industry transports around 200 million tonnes every year for German industry, so we cannot be replaced,” insists Steffen Bauer, the boss of hgk Shipping, Germany’s largest inland shipping company. A medium-sized truck can carry around 25 tons; a barge can easily carry 3,000 tons. Shipping goods by river is generally cheaper than road or rail, and may be the only option for large or irregularly shaped shipments.
How much the Rhine woes will affect the German economy remains a heated debate. The 2018 crisis caused Germany to fall by 0.4% gdp, says the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a think tank. Water levels this year have been lower, so in theory the damage could be worse. Conversely, however, the German economy is softer than it was a few years ago, says Salomon Fiedler of Berenberg, a bank. This means that industrial production – and therefore demand for things arriving on ships – was likely lower when this year’s water shortage began.
Mr Bauer hopes vivid images of the dried-up Rhine bed will spur politicians to action. The receding waters revealed piles of rusty ammunition, among other curious things; police identified some 400 kg of decomposing explosives around a single port in Mainz. Volker Wissing, the traffic minister, recently called for dredging of the Rhine to eliminate shallow areas. But he said it would take around ten years for the “giant project” to be completed. Until then, businesses that depend on the river must hope that the low tide will not expose explosive rifts in their emergency planning. ■