Low water levels from persistent heat in Europe forced the Rhine to close for the first time in four years.
Late on Friday, Germany announced the closure of some waterways as Kaub water levels reached the 37cm to 41cm necessary for operations, despite reduced loads and with many operators already operating barge services at 20% capacity.
Over the weekend, the water level dropped to 32cm. In the middle of the Rhine, the minimum water level for inland ships to pass is between 30 cm and 35 cm. Barge operator Contargo said: "For safety reasons, we will basically stop sailing on the upper and middle Rhine."
"We have to regret to point out that we can no longer guarantee that all deadlines are met, and, under the general terms and conditions, we are no longer obligated to ship," the company told customers.
Contargo imposed a low-water surcharge late last month when the water level in Kaub fell below 81cm and the Duisburg-Ruhrt below 181cm, and last week when the water level fell below 50cm, Contargo raised these surcharges to €589 per 20ft container and €775 per 40ft – figures that are "crazy", sources say, but the company is not alone in imposing a low water surcharge.
Other sources said the closure of the shipping lane "couldn't have been worse" for European supply chains, which were already deeply affected by severe port congestion and the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Now, many are also wondering how they can retrieve the containers already on the barge when the closure is announced and deliver them to the nearest terminal for unloading.
Contargo told customers: “We will arrange our fleet of barges to be able to safely unload your containers at one of our terminals. We will also do our best to continue transporting our customers’ containers. As long as the water level of the Lower Rhine allows inland navigation, We can then transport containers via the land bridge between the upper and middle Rhine terminals and the lower Rhine terminals.”
However, this is not guaranteed. One forwarder said they were told the water level could fall below the record 27cm set in 2018 and hit 25cm on Wednesday.
Gunther Ginckels, an inland transport consultant, added: "It shows how important inland shipping is to ensuring the movement of goods across Europe, but these dramatic events should not make people aware of it."
The 2018 drought kept the Rhine from fully reopening for about six months, after which discussions began to deepen the Rhine. Nickels said the project needed government and industry support, but it has been stalled in part because of the pandemic and now the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. "It is possible that after this closure, the deepening of the river channel project may be back on the agenda, but it is not known how complete the plan is. But it is clear that deepening along the Kaub section alone will not be enough," he said.
Experts say that if the water level drops to 30 centimeters, there is a high probability that shipping in the region will come to a standstill, and inland shipping in the middle and upper Rhine will no longer be possible.
When the water level is low, inland ships can carry less cargo, but if too little cargo is always loaded, then the cost-effectiveness of shipping is no longer there. In fact, even if the water level in the Kaub area is above 70 cm, the cargo ship can only carry 30% to 40% of the load.
However, the water level does not represent the actual water depth of the river, but rather the difference between the water surface and the horizon.
The situation in the lower Rhine is also not optimistic. On Sunday afternoon, the water level in Cologne was only 74cm, 8cm lower than the previous day. In Düsseldorf, the water level of the Rhine has dropped to 34 centimeters, a drop of 9 centimeters in 24 hours. However, the actual depth of the channel is still nearly two meters deep.
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