Rhine River Set to Shrink to Critical Threshold for Navigability

Rhine River Set to Shrink to Critical Threshold for Navigability

Bloomberg — 2022-08-12

Maritime and Ports

The Rhine River on 12 August is set to shrivel to a crucial level that could upend the trade of fuels throughout Europe, with the effects potentially rippling through the continent for months. 

The water level at Kaub - a key waypoint west of Frankfurt - is poised to breach 40 centimeters and continue dwindling in subsequent days, according to German government data. Below that marker, it’s not economical for many barges to transit the river. 

The Rhine is used to ship everything from fuels to chemicals, paper products to grains. The climate crisis on the river couldn’t happen at a worse time, with Europe already in the grips of an energy supply crunch in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The twin crises have sent costs soaring for businesses, undermining efforts to tame inflation.

Economic Lifeline

The Rhine links German and Swiss industry with Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest port. In Germany, companies have been taking steps to prepare. Chemical maker BASF SE is using more rail to transport goods and has ordered shallow-water barges. While there’s no impact currently, the company has said it can’t rule out a reduction in production rates for some plants in the coming weeks.

Utility Uniper SE said on 11 August it won’t be able to bring enough coal by train to run its plants at full capacity for a longer period of time. It previously warned of production cuts at Staudinger-5 plant into September due to lack of coal. 

Steelmaker Thyssenkrupp AG has said its crisis team is meeting daily, and it’s using ships with lower drafts to keep its mill in the town of Duisburg supplied.

If the disruption continues into September, there could be an increase in demand for trucking to transport goods across Germany, according to Simonas Bartkus, head of marketing and communication at Girteka Logistics, the owner of Europe’s largest fleet of trucks. He said the company wasn’t yet seeing any immediate impact on demand from the low Rhine levels.

Fuels Transport

Shallow water prevents barges from loading their full volumes. Low water occasionally affects traffic on the Rhine, but this year it’s particularly bad.

The level at Kaub is at its lowest level for the time of year since at least 2007, official figures show. By early Monday 15 August, the marker at the waypoint is set to fall to 33 centimeters. The level is a measure of navigability, not the actual depth of the river.

The trade of 400,000 barrels a day of oil products could be disrupted along the river that stretches from the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp (ARA) region through Germany to Switzerland, according to Facts Global Energy. That’s about the same capacity as Europe’s biggest oil refinery.

Stockpiles of diesel and related fuel in independent storage in the ARA region are at their lowest seasonal level since at least 2008. 

The river crisis is especially concerning for landlocked countries in Central and Eastern Europe that normally get fuel via the Rhine, according to the International Energy Agency. “We’re expecting this situation to continue towards the end of the year,” Toril Bosoni, head of the IEA’s oil market division, said in a Bloomberg Television interview on 11 August.