Bonn - Hot summers are increasing the risk of making the Rhine, Europe’s most important waterway, impassable for extended periods. Already last year, recalls Deutsche Welle in a feature article, water levels dropped to an extent that boat traffic had to be halted for the first time in living memory.
The historic shutdown is said to have shaved 0.2% off Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP) last year, and unusually low water hampered cargo traffic from August to December.
This year, writes Deutsche Welle, those conditions could be repeated. Extreme heat in mid-July caused water levels at Kaub — a critical choke point near Frankfurt — to fall to about 150 centimeters (59 inches), half the depth from just a month ago. Movements of the heaviest barges are already restricted, and all river cargo could again cease if the level falls below 50 centimeters.
The Rhine is critical to commerce in all of Europe. The continent’s most important waterway snakes 1,233 kilometers (800 miles) through industrial zones in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands before emptying into the North Sea at the busy Rotterdam port.
Shallow water not only means reduced traffic. The chemical industry along the river, including giants like BASF and Bayer, depend on sufficient amounts of cooling water at the right temperatures for their plants. Low water levels can no longer guarantee this because the river heats up more quickly.
The threat of a repeat of the 2018 emergency has spurred the government into action. As companies like BASF have demanded measures to improve the infrastructure along the Rhine waterway, Transportation Minister Andreas Scheuer unveiled an action plan in July. The 8-point catalog of measures includes a better early-warning system to help companies plan alternative transport options.