The prolonged drought that has hit several European countries in recent months has already caused enormous inconvenience to agriculture, but the exceptionally low water levels recorded in most of Europe’s major rivers in recent weeks are a growing concern another sector, inland navigation, particularly on the Rhine and Danube.
According to a calculation by Bloomberg based on data from Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, the rivers and canals that cross European countries enable the equivalent of one tonne of goods to be transported per inhabitant of the European Union, which contributes around 80 billion euros to the world continental economy.
But now the situation of many rivers is critical. Due to the drought and the great heat, the water of the Danube, which crosses Bavaria, Austria and various Eastern European countries, has dropped sharply and then flows into the Black Sea. The water level of the Rhine, which is very important for trade in Switzerland, Germany , France and the Netherlands, it surpassed the minimum depth record set in 2018 when a severe shoal wreaked havoc on the German economy.
In some places, the water level of the two rivers is so low that navigation is very difficult, with the result that many ships and barges intended for the transport of goods are blocked or, in any case, their passage is significantly slowed down. An example: In a rather narrow and shallow section of the Rhine west of Frankfurt, which is already difficult to navigate anyway, the water level dropped to 49 centimeters on August 7: 40 centimeters is the level at which the river is located. The transport in this area is considered economically disadvantageous.
According to various academics and transport experts heard by Bloomberg, the transport capacity of inland waterways in Europe is severely limited by this situation.
With such low water levels, companies engaged in river transport are forced to limit the amount of transported goods in order to navigate safely, which affects the cost of services. It’s an issue that also affects the transportation of coal for power generation to Germany, one of the countries hardest hit by the disruption to Russia’s gas supplies due to the war in Ukraine.
Water scarcity in rivers also affects the production capacity of hydroelectric power plants, most of which are built downstream of large ponds from which water flows to drive turbines. The lack of water has already made it necessary to reduce the activity of many plants of this type at a time when energy costs are very high, both due to the war and in the post-pandemic recovery period.
The water from the rivers is also used for field irrigation, industry, tourism and domestic use. Due to the persistent drought in recent weeks, consumption restrictions have been introduced in several French departments. Similar measures have also been taken in various municipalities in northern Italy, where states of emergency had already been declared for various regions at the beginning of July and where, moreover, the drought in the Po Delta has upset the balance of the lagoons due to a death of shellfish. , shellfish essential to the local economy.
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According to forecasts by Albert Jan Swart, transport economist at ABN Amro Bank, the current situation will have worse consequences for the economies of European countries than the traffic problems on the Rhine in 2018, which caused EUR 5 billion in damage. “We’re talking billions here,” Swart said. The situation could also worsen with the forecast increase in extreme weather events due to climate change.
To solve the problem, various sections of the Danube in Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia are being dredged, as are some sections of the Rhine in Germany. A project has also been launched in Germany that aims to deepen the Rhine between the cities of Sankt Goar and Budenheim, also west of Frankfurt, by 20 centimetres, but not until 2030, i.e. not in the short term.
Meanwhile, the difficulties related to river freight transport are added to those of the transport sector in general. In Germany, for example, the rail network is already very busy and it takes more than 110 trucks to transport the same amount of goods by road as a standard-sized barge transports, according to an estimate by Bloomberg: in the countryside, however , tens of thousands of hauliers are missing, both for reasons related to the coronavirus pandemic and for other reasons, such as many Ukrainians returning to their country due to the war.
As Fred Hattermann, who researches hydrogeological risks at the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Potsdam, explained, rivers for the transport of goods in Europe will not be completely “useless”, but will “probably be much less reliant on in the future”.
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