Bonn. The water level of the Rhine sank even further on Friday. The German weather service has not given the all-clear: the heavy rainfall needed is not due in the next few days. The situation for the inland shipping traffic and ferry services therefore remains difficult.
The Rhine water level dropped further on Friday: While it was just under 90 centimetres in Bonn on Wednesday evening, only 87 centimetres were measured on Friday afternoon. This value comes very close to the lowest water level ever recorded at the end of September 2003. According to online information from Bonn city council, the water level from 28 to 29 September was 86 centimetres. The Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration even estimates the lowest water level recorded to date at 90 centimetres, which is already below the previous record.
At that time, however, the cargo ships were still operating continuously, as were the ferries in the Bonn area. "There will be no officially ordered suspension of shipping," a spokesman for the water police said. Nevertheless, the low water level affects the prices of heating oil, petrol and diesel. The freighters can transport less cargo and are demanding a "Kleinwasserzuschlag" (a low water surcharge) to compensate for losses.
"We have to reassess the risk every day," says Nicole Becker, press spokeswoman for Köln-Düsseldorfer Rheinschifffahrt, the Rhine river cruise operator. This was probably too high for those in charge last Tuesday, which is why the company discontinued its services five days before the scheduled end of the season. The round trips in Düsseldorf, Cologne and Frankfurt will continue, as their excursion ships are not so deep.
"Mooring is the main problem," says Becker. Unlike in the navigational channels of the river, a certain depth cannot be guaranteed at the landing stages. We must absolutely avoid running aground. In addition, the forecast for the Rhine water level continues to fall. The water level in Kaub, south of the Loreley rock, was 38 centimetres on Wednesday, only three centimetres above the level when the Köln-Düsseldorfer ship the Loreley made ground contact here in 2003 and got stuck on the water bank. Several people were injured. According to Becker, however, there is no connection between the current decision and the accident.
Most ferries are still operating
The Rhine ferries in Graurheindorf, Bad Godesberg and Königswinter continue to run. However, in Graurheindorf/Mondorf and Königswinter/Mehlem heavy vehicles over 7.5 tons can no longer be taken onboard. This also applies to the ferry lines in Remagen towards Bonn and the "RheinSchwan" in Niederkassel. The depth at the landing stages is also problematic for the ferries. "We are not giving up", said one of the affected ferry captains whose lines are still in service.
However, the "Rheinnixe" in Beuel has suspended its ferry service for the time being due to the low water levels. The ferry line in Bad Honnef has made the same decision. Here, according to an announcement on their internet site, dredging work in the coming week should bring relief. Even if the situation has to be reassessed every day and every hour, the ferrymen on the lines still in service are not assuming that they will have to stop operating at any time. The fastest way to find out whether the ferries are running is to check the respective websites.
The connection between Bad Honnef and Rolandseck was already suspended on Wednesday. The ferry Bad Breisig-Bad Hönningen has also been forced to take a break from Thursday evening at 9 pm. According to the ferry company Hirzmann, safe mooring and casting off can no longer be guaranteed. The Rhine level fell three centimetres on each of the past few days and twelve centimetres on Thursday. "We will resume operations as quickly as possible, if the water level permits," says Hirzmann GmbH. The ferry service between Kripp and Linz ran on Friday: "Our ferries St. John and Nixe are in operation despite the low water level".
Price increases for heating oil and fuel
The Shell refinery in Wesseling has also had to adjust to the low water levels. "It is a challenge, but we have the situation under control," says press spokesman Jan Zeese. Many of the company's products are transported by ship. "Logistics must be adjusted as less cargo can be transported away." Accordingly, production has been partially reduced. If necessary, other distribution channels can also be used and more goods would be transported by rail, road or pipeline. "There are always bottlenecks," says Zeese. For example, in the event of flooding or during maintenance works on parts of the plant.
Maike Hagedorn, spokeswoman for energy supplier Knauber, confirmed a connection between rising fuel prices and the low water level of the Rhine. Although prices are primarily determined by the world market, regional factors also have an influence. Therefore, increasing transport costs caused by loading less cargo on the freight ships and shifting the goods to rail transport results in a rise in prices for the customer. The price of heating oil and fuel in northern Germany is currently around six cents per litre cheaper than in the south.
Depth below equivalent water level
The tasks of the water police at low water levels are the same as at normal levels. Cargo ships are only inspected if it looks like they are too deep in the water. "That almost never happens. They are professionals, after all," says a spokesman. The shipping crews travel on the Rhine every day and want to get themselves and their cargo safely to their destination. Each shipping company must make its own decision. Economic efficiency plays the most important role here, at some point the journey simply no longer pays off - not even with a low water surcharge, which is intended to cover the costs of shipping with less freight.
Anyone hoping to be able to walk across the Rhine to the other side will be just as disappointed as in 2003: the dredged navigation channel in the river is about 150 meters wide and considerably deeper than the river bottom which is currently visible. For inland navigation, the so-called depth below the equivalent water level (gleichwertige Wasserstand or GlW) is important. For example, at a water level of one meter in Bonn, the actual navigation channel is still about 2.10 metres deep.
Trend reversal not yet in sight
Florial Krekel from the Water and Shipping Authority in Bingen explained that rain was necessary for a real trend reversal, i.e. a longer-term increase in water levels. However, this is not expected for the time being, according to the forecast of the German weather service. The Federal Institute of Hydrology therefore expects that, for example, the level in Kaub will fall to 23 centimetres at the beginning of next week, which means that a full revival of the shipping traffic is a long way off. (Original text: Nicole Garten-Dölle / dpa, Translation: Caroline Payne)