River Rhine shut for barges in nearly 50km at Koblenz area

Jonathan Lopez


LONDON (ICIS)–Barge shipping is shut in a 45km-stretch on the river Rhine after torrential rain raised water levels over the legally maximum permitted, the German waterways federal authority WSV confirmed to ICIS on Friday.

However, the shutdown may only last a few hours and barge shipping could return later on Friday, a WSV spokesperson added.

Heavy rain in southern Germany has caused widespread flooding, with dozens of deaths and many more injured.

The WSV said on Thursday the River would need to be shut for barge shipping unless water levels decreased; German law establishes that barge shipping cannot continue if water levels are over 640cm (6.4 metres).

As rain has continued, levels have kept going up, with the WSV taking the drastic, unusual decision to shut a stretch of the river altogether.

The Rhine is a key petrochemicals waterway in northwest Europe, with intense trade activity, so any disruption is likely to increase logistics costs for those markets.

The river is the main mode of transport for petrochemicals, chemicals, and crude oil products in the heavily industrialised German southwest, and it also serves the petrochemicals hub in the Netherlands.

“The water level at Koblenz gauging station exceeded the maximum shipping water level (650 cm) two hours ago [11:00 local time],” said the WSV’s spokesperson.

“So, shipping is closed between Bad Breisig (kilometre 566) and Engers (km 601).”

However, the WSV cited forecasts from Elwis, a consultancy specialised on German waterways, to indicate that water levels at Koblenz may only be over the legal limit on Friday, falling considerably over the weekend.

“According to the latest forecasts, it should reopen today [Friday] in the evening,” the spokesperson added.

Click on image to enlarge

Source: Elwis

The forecasts have improved; as of Thursday, water levels in Koblenz were expected at or above 6.4 metres on 19-21 July.

The Rhine’s low water levels recurrently appear and cause problems for petrochemicals trade; but high water levels shutting the waterway altogether is a different, major issue.

Some petrochemicals markets that depend mostly on the Rhine for their logistics have had to reduce operations drastically.

More generally, sources have been aghast about the destruction cause by the latest rains in southern Germany.

“The areas near to the river Ruhr are completely flooded, and other areas in north Rhine Westphalia [are] even worse – so many have died or are still missing,” said one Germany-based source in the bioethanol market.

“When it comes to nature, wind, fire, water humans have no chance.”

The human costs of the 2021 floods in Germany will run high and is yet to be fully accounted for. In petrochemicals trade, however, the consequences are already here and transports costs are shooting up.

The levels of trade in the River is so large that rail or road can hardy be an alternative for the full volumes of business.

The same bioethanol source added: “Railway is extremely difficult now. Engines and RTCs [rail tank cars] are stuck because of the floods. It will be a logistical challenge to resolve these issues, even after the rain and floods stop,” it said.

“It will take a lot of time. The fear now is that water from the smaller rivers will come to the Rhine; I guess navigation difficulties may continue.”

In the biodiesel market, a source said all shipments have come to a standstill, a knock-on effect from the Rhine’s woes.

“I can’t send imports to refineries here in Germany. Rhine is blocking shipment of materials and causing me productions issues. Rhine-related issues should be resolved next week, hopefully – once it stops raining!” the biodiesel source said.

A landslide caused by heavy flooding in Erftstadt, Germany. Source: Rhein-Erft-Kreis handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 

Additional reporting by Nazif Nazmul and Shruti Salwan


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