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Germany’s Economy Is Carried on the Rhine’s Shrinking Back

Rivers are critical to transportation—and drying up as the climate shifts.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The Rhine runs low during a heat wave in Cologne, Germany, on July 18.
The Rhine runs low during a heat wave in Cologne, Germany, on July 18.
The Rhine runs low during a heat wave in Cologne, Germany, on July 18. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“Deep river, my home is over Jordan,” the eponymous spiritual goes. The Jordan River, alas, is not very deep anymore: In recent decades, it has lost a massive 90 percent of its flow thanks to dams and other constructions and now climate change. And it’s not the only flowing torrent that’s now more of a trickle. In the Rhine, the artery of large chunks of European industry, water levels are now so low that global supply chains are under threat. That’s another wake-up call—because if the world is to tackle climate change, we need to move cargo from polluting road traffic to climate-friendly rivers.

This week, the Rhine’s water level near the picturesque town of Kaub—which all ships traveling to the industry-heavy southwest of Germany need to pass through—reached a mere 0.7 meters (2.3 feet). That’s far below the 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) most river ships require as their bare minimum and still under the 0.78-meter mark below which a river is classified as low-water.

In Germany, river transport accounts for 6 percent of the total volume of transportation but plays an outsized role in transportation industry-bound raw materials. Some 30 percent of coal, crude oil, and natural gas and around 20 percent of coking plant and petroleum products are shipped on rivers, economists Martin Ademmer, Nils Jannsen, and Saskia Mösle of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy noted in a 2020 report. The Rhine transports the vast majority of this cargo, along with, among other things, 11 percent of chemicals used by German industry. German manufacturing now faces shortages of these critical goods. Paradoxically, coal—which is experiencing a sudden renaissance as Germany tries to find alternatives to Russian energy—now can’t get where it’s needed on time.

“Deep river, my home is over Jordan,” the eponymous spiritual goes. The Jordan River, alas, is not very deep anymore: In recent decades, it has lost a massive 90 percent of its flow thanks to dams and other constructions and now climate change. And it’s not the only flowing torrent that’s now more of a trickle. In the Rhine, the artery of large chunks of European industry, water levels are now so low that global supply chains are under threat. That’s another wake-up call—because if the world is to tackle climate change, we need to move cargo from polluting road traffic to climate-friendly rivers.

This week, the Rhine’s water level near the picturesque town of Kaub—which all ships traveling to the industry-heavy southwest of Germany need to pass through—reached a mere 0.7 meters (2.3 feet). That’s far below the 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) most river ships require as their bare minimum and still under the 0.78-meter mark below which a river is classified as low-water.

In Germany, river transport accounts for 6 percent of the total volume of transportation but plays an outsized role in transportation industry-bound raw materials. Some 30 percent of coal, crude oil, and natural gas and around 20 percent of coking plant and petroleum products are shipped on rivers, economists Martin Ademmer, Nils Jannsen, and Saskia Mösle of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy noted in a 2020 report. The Rhine transports the vast majority of this cargo, along with, among other things, 11 percent of chemicals used by German industry. German manufacturing now faces shortages of these critical goods. Paradoxically, coal—which is experiencing a sudden renaissance as Germany tries to find alternatives to Russian energy—now can’t get where it’s needed on time.

But it’s worse news still for the countless consumers and businesses in the heart of Europe whose livelihoods rely on river transport. As a result of the low water level, “we’re currently only allowed to transport 50 percent of the volumes we’re capable of transporting,” Roberto Spranzi, the head of Germany’s river transport association, told the German Press Agency. At full load, ships go deeper into the water. Even if the water doesn’t go any lower than the current level, that still means half of all the planned cargo deliveries won’t be taking place. That’s a lot of critical goods unable to reach their destinations.

But the Rhine’s importance goes far beyond German industry. And it’s not just that the stunning views that have long delighted tourists and residents of the Rhine’s many charming cities—not to mention writers such as Goethe and Heine—are beginning to dry up. It’s thanks to the Rhine that the North Sea port of Rotterdam has grown into Europe’s largest port—and the only European port in the list of the world’s top 10 biggest ports, a ranking that is otherwise dominated by Chinese hubs. Indeed, German, French, Swiss, Belgian, and Dutch industrial power in the past couple of centuries was made possible by cheap river transport on the Rhine, which helped bring down the costs of imported raw materials.

Today, one-fifth of the world’s chemical industries have manufacturing facilities along the river. Every year, millions of tons of cargo arrive at Rotterdam and travel onward to European factories and consumers along the 800-mile river, and every year, other goods and components make the same journey northward for further transportation to global customers.

And no, companies won’t be able to simply find alternative routes for their cargo. Railways are running at capacity, and there’s a dire need of truck drivers (a situation I predicted in these pages four years ago). The world is, of course, trying to move away from polluting road transport anyway, toward more transport by river and rail. But if the Rhine’s water level drops another 0.3 meters or so, not even barges will be able to make the river journey. Just as China’s zero-COVID strategy has caused logistical chaos, so will low water levels in the Rhine.

The vital importance of the Rhine’s water levels to European prosperity isn’t news. For generations, merchants and industrialists—not to mention shippers—have monitored the river’s vital signs. And two years ago, the Kiel Institute researchers quantified the Rhine’s importance to Germany’s economy. “Low water levels lead to transportation disruptions that cause a significant and economically meaningful decrease of economic activity,” they noted, explaining that in a month with 30 days of low water levels on the Rhine, German industrial production stands to shrink by 1 percent. Unfortunately, as the Association for European Inland Navigation and Waterways notes in a 2021 report, low water levels are becoming more frequent in Germany. The association recommends adaptive measures such as the remodeling of existing ships and construction of new models and of more dams and barrages.

The Rhine’s malady, though, isn’t a one-off, because radical weather patterns and their results—including too little rain or too much of it—are another result of climate change. “Climate changes such as rising temperatures, more frequent extreme storms and changes in season precipitation rates will impact lakes, rivers and streams. As air temperatures rise, so will water temperatures in freshwater systems. Shallow waters are especially vulnerable to temperature increases, which decreases the availability of [freshwater] habitat for cold-water species,” Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute notes.

The impact extends far beyond shipping: Warmer temperatures in lakes and rivers harm the supply of oxygen—and without adequate oxygen supplies, fish die. With the opposite problem from the Rhine, the Nile River delta risks losing 19 percent of its adjoining land to rising sea levels.

There’s also a more promising solution, one that comes with sundry benefits including citizens’ well-being, the inhabitability of cities, and the long-term health of farmland: reducing carbon emissions. Just as they were saved from the rampant pollution that was once the norm in Europe, so rivers can be saved from the ravages of climate change—and with them a mode of transport that’s not just clean but economically vital for Germany and the world.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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