Drought and the economy: the example of the Rhine river

I’ve always been impressed by the constant movement of cargo and people along the river Rhine and its importance to the European economy. As an undergraduate Erasmus student in 1990, I spent three months in the Netherlands during which time I sampled invertebrates on the Rhine and Maas rivers in the eastern part of the country. Later, I saw Jacques Cousteau’s documentary on his trip up the Rhine and over to the Danube and the difficulties his hired vessel had passing below the bridges in high waters.

Upstream view of the Rhine River, Düsseldorf, Germany, from the Rheinturm in April 2013, when water levels were higher.

Nowadays, passing under bridges in European rivers is again difficult but for the opposite reason: low waters. There was plenty of news about high temperatures and drought in Germany in 2018 and how this affected transport and tourism on the Rhine and other rivers. I was told it was even possible to walk across the Rhine near the Altstadt in Düsseldorf in the summer of 2018!

View of the Rheinturm and the Rheinkniebrücke on the Rhine river, Düsseldorf, Germany in August 2018 with much lower water levels. Note the exposed river bed under the bridge (right). Shipping must squeeze past using a deeper channel (left).

A Bloomberg news report showed that summer water levels at Kaub, one of the most iconic locations on the Rhine in Germany, have been declining steadily since the 1990s, coinciding with Swiss data on glacier retreat. The water levels data are from the German Waterways and Shipping Administration (Wasserstraßen und Schifffahrtsverwaltung des Bundes).

Besides climate change increasing the frequency and severity of droughts, increased winter and early spring discharge is also predicted in the Rhine and Danube basins. The impact of climate change on the economy along the Rhine has been causing delays in shipping, reduced industrial production, and cruise boat cancellations. The situation, of course, becomes even more serious when impacts on water security, agriculture, biodiversity and the ecological functioning of aquatic habitats are taken into account.

With the summer of 2019 already beginning, the obvious  questions are: will there be another severe drought in the Rhine river and what will be the impacts?

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