Rhine river falls below critical 40cm mark at key German waypoint

Inland motor freighters transporting coal along the Rhine River in Germany on Aug 10, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG
A cargo vessel sails along a channel on the River Rhine near Pfalzgrafenstein castle in Kaub, Germany, on Aug 4, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HAMBURG (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - The water level on the Rhine River at the key waypoint of Kaub dropped on Friday (Aug 12) below the critical 40cm mark as Europe’s blistering summer shrivels the artery.

At this level and below, it becomes uneconomical for many barges that haul commodities like diesel and coal to sail through that part of the river, according to Germany’s Federal Institute for Hydrology.

At 39cm, the level at Kaub is now at its lowest for the time of year since at least 1993, official figures show.

By early next Tuesday, the marker at the waypoint is set to fall to 34cm. The level is a measure of navigability, not the actual depth of the river.

About 160 million tonnes of goods and commodities were hauled along the Rhine in 2020, ranging from chemicals to iron ore to oil products.

Low water levels restrict the transport of goods along the waterway by limiting how much barges can carry without scraping against the riverbed.

Elsewhere, the Danube, which snakes its way about 2,900km through central Europe to the Black Sea, is gummed up too, hampering grain and other trade.

In the United Kingdom, the source of the River Thames has dried up further downstream than ever before.

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.

The trade of 400,000 barrels a day of oil products could be disrupted along the river that stretches from the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp region through Germany to Switzerland, according to Facts Global Energy.

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 Thursday 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.

The level at Kaub is at its lowest level for the time of year since at least 2007. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

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.

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 Thursday.

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