Low Water Levels Risk Closing Europe’s Vital Rhine River

WThe Rhine River’s upper levels are expected to drop dangerously close to its point of closing, which could threaten the flow of large quantities of goods as Europe tries to avoid an economic crisis.

The river at Kaub, Germany—a key waypoint for the shipment of commodities—is set to drop to 47 centimeters (18.5 inches) by the weekend. This would make it almost impassible within seven centimeters.

Europe faces the worst energy supply crunch since decades. Russia is cutting off its natural gas supplies, which has led to inflation. Now climate change is adding to the continent’s woes. As governments attempt to stop the energy crisis from causing the region to fall into recession, an impassible river could block the flow of all things from fuel and chemicals.

The Rhine, which runs approximately 800 miles (1.288 kms) between Switzerland and the North Sea is crucial for exports and deliveries of heating oil, gasoline and other commodities.

“With the Rhine transport disrupted and alternatives such as rail and road looking increasingly expensive, it will be difficult for Germany and Switzerland to build gasoil/diesel stocks before temperatures cool,” said Josh Folds, a European oil analyst at consultants Facts Global Energy. “This is especially true given the situation with Russian gasoil/diesel imports.”

Commodity Barges

Tuesday saw the Kaub water level drop to its lowest levels since 2018 after a year with widespread disruptions for major industrial users. It’s now a little over 60 centimeters and is forecast to drop to 47 centimeters on Saturday, according to the German Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration.

A representative for Germany’s Federal Institute of Hydrology said in July that it becomes uneconomical for barges carrying commodities to sail past Kaub when the measured level drops to 40 centimeters or below.

Trade flows are being disrupted by the low levels. This is limiting fuel barges’ ability to transport enough fuel into Europe. Switzerland is currently releasing strategic reserve stock of oil-based fuel from the Rhine.

Parts of inland Europe’s fuel supply are also being hampered by refinery outages in Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria. Along with Hungary, the latter is also making fuel available from its stock.

Joseph McDonnell from Energy Aspects, an analyst in oil products, said that low water has impacted the shipping downriver. This is affecting some components needed to make gasoline. The flow of petrochemical feedstocks, like naphtha, from the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Antwerp hub to inland facilities, is also being affected, he said.

—With assistance from William Wilkes.

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