Rhine River Drying Up In Heat Wave

The Rhine River, Europe’s most important commercial waterway, is drying up in a ferocious midsummer heat wave—just as Germany, in particular, was coming to rely on it for more barge movements of petroleum products in the wake of pipeline shutdowns from Russia. The Rhine is the cheapest way to transport bulk commodities between France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. 

A severe drought has caused Rhine River levels to plunge. The gauge at the key chokepoint of Kaub, near Cologne, reached 73 centimeters (about 2.4 feet) July 21, vs. a normal level of about 180 centimeters (just under 6 feet). On the Upper Rhine, barge volumes have been limited to 800 metric tons, down from 2,500 metric tons.

Okke Hamann, chief executive of the Lower Rhine Chamber for Industry and Commerce, told the German media group DW (Deutsche Welle) that the low water had come early this year and said low levels meant barges have to light-load. 

Roberto Spranzi from the DTG German Inland Navigation Association told DW that the professional shippers the organization represents were currently allowed to transport only about 50 percent of the cargo they usually carried.

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Switzerland was forced to release oil from its reserve stockpile to replace oil that normally comes in on Rhine River barges. The Swiss government said it would release 245,000 cubic meters (about 1.54 million barrels) of oil from July 25 through the beginning of September. That’s about 6.6 percent of its stock, and equals about 25 percent of monthly demand, according to Quantum Commodity Intelligence.

It’s the first time the Swiss government has released oil stock from its reserves since the summer of 2018, when the Rhine reached record lows, slowing river traffic, causing riverside industries to shut down and causing the German economy to contract.

Christian Hellbach from the Waterway and Shipping Authority in Cologne, Germany, said low water days for the Rhine usually begin in July and are at their lowest in September and October, but this year the drought began earlier.