Germany's Rhine low water contingency planning

Germany’s federal transport secretary, Andreas Scheuer, has published an action plan aimed at dealing with extreme low water levels on the river Rhine

Dubbed ‘Niedrigwasser Rhein’ (Low water Rhine), the plan - officially unveiled on the river at Cologne - aims to mitigate the effects of extreme low water levels on the logistical chain. Climate change in general, and last year’s inland shipping disruptions due to drought in particular, explain Berlin’s thinking.

“H2O instead of CO2, we’ll make Rhine goods traffic future-proof," said Scheuer. The plan was developed in co-operation with German companies highly dependent on the Rhine for inbound raw materials and/or outbound finished goods exports, such as BASF and Thyssenkrupp Steel Europe AG.

The plan has eight threads. Four cover information, transport and logistics, infrastructure in the short term and the other four are long term initiatives.

  • Improved water level forecasting for 10 days ahead and charting trends for the periods from six weeks up to six months ahead.
  • Setting up a Climate & Water Bureau to conceive concrete contingency measures for current situations and for long-term infrastructural adaptations. Part of Germany’s ‘Climate change adaptation strategy’ (DAS), the Bureau will build on the resources of the country’s operational national bureaus for weather, hydrology, maritime shipping and hydrography and hydraulic engineering.
  • Provision of current water levels in ECDIS, the electronic inland shipping map.
  • Measures to optimise dealing with extreme low water under existing waterway conditions. This includes diversions, additional storage capacity, development of shallow draught barges and digitisation of inland shipping. Berlin is prepared to subsidise.

Looking further ahead, the measures comprise:

  • Accelerating infrastructural improvements related to the middle and lower Rhine that are already included in the national traffic infrastructure plan (Bundesverkehrswegeplan 2030). Even though those improvements initially focus on normal low and medium water levels, they should contribute to contingency under extreme conditions, it is argued. Berlin will bring the projects forward, including early community communications and environmental compensation measures.
  • The use of special acts to accelerate the realisation of infrastructural solutions bypassing the common, lengthy planning procedures. An interim act for this is due to be submitted later this year.
  • Investigations into long term solutions through hydraulic engineering and economical shipping options, considering that extreme and lengthy low water situations are deemed likely to occur more frequently. The feasibility of all options must be investigated with an open mind. This includes water locks and storage solutions. This, it is understood, refers to emergency shelter for barges.
  • Intensifying the social dialogue to create awareness and acceptance of the measures needed to secure the river Rhine’s multiple functions.