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Germany’s Rhine Seen Surging to More Navigable Level Next Week

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The water level at a key German chokepoint on the Rhine River is forecast to surge early next week, making it significantly easier for barges carrying vital cargoes to traverse the waterway.

The marker at Kaub, currently at just 35 centimeters (13.8 inches), is expected to jump as high as 148 centimeters on Tuesday morning, according to German government data. At that depth, it is economical for many — if not all — barges to sail through the waypoint carrying at least some cargo.

Low water-levels have been hampering the delivery of commodities through inland Europe for weeks, worsening the continent’s energy crisis and aggravating inflation. In 2020, 160 million tons of goods were shipped along the Rhine, including mineral oil products, coal and chemicals, according to the most recent annual report from the Central Commission for the Navigation of the Rhine.

To be sure, the forecast for higher water levels is no guarantee that the crisis is over. Historical data for Kaub show that, on a 20-year average, the water level is at its lowest in early October. That suggests it may fall even lower later on this year. When the Kaub measure hit its lowest since at least 1990 in 2018, it was in late October. Prior to November 2013, data were tallied on a daily, rather than intraday basis.

When the measured water level at Kaub drops to 40 centimeters or below, it becomes uneconomical for many barges to haul cargo through the chokepoint. That’s because shallow water restricts how much vessels can carry — take on too much, and they risk coming into contact with the riverbed. The water level is not the actual depth of the river, but rather a measure used for navigability.

“Within the next few days, the water levels will rise again in the entire Rhine catchment area due to the announced precipitation,” the Rhine Waterways and Shipping Authority, known as WSA, said in a statement “The 14-day forecast further suggests that water levels will rise by about 50cm by the end of next week, but will subside after the wave has passed.”

Operations of shippers — such as Contargo GmbH & Co. KG and Neska Container Line BV — as well as industrial facilities along the river have been severely disrupted by the low water. Shell Plc’s Rhineland refinery, Germany’s biggest oil processing complex, has cut production and Ford Motor Co. has curbed barge loads of vehicles from Cologne, though it has also increased the frequency of shipments.

The shallowness of the Rhine could cut Germany’s gross domestic product by 0.25% to 0.5% during the roughly three-month period when the river is at its driest, Elmar Voelker, senior fixed income analyst at LBBW, said via email on Thursday. Though there is the possibility of a “catch-up effect” later on, once the crisis is over, she added.