Drought. The European economy threatened by the drying up of rivers


In the midst of a dry summer in which temperatures broke records across Europe, the water in the rivers evaporated. The Rhine, the mainstay of the German, Dutch and Swiss economies for centuries, is at risk of becoming unnavigable, which will suspend the transport of large quantities of diesel and coal. The Danube, which winds 2,850 kilometers through central Europe to the Black Sea, is also in poor condition, making it difficult to trade grain and other goods. Transport is just one of the river activities altered by climate change. The energy crisis in France is getting worse because the Rhone and Garonne are too hot to really cool the nuclear reactors. In Italy, the level of the Po is too low to irrigate the rice fields and raise the clams that decorate the alle vongole pasta dishes. These disturbances would already be a challenge in times of prosperity, but in this case the region is approaching recession; the Russian invasion of Ukraine fuels inflation by contracting food and energy supplies. This situation, four years after the historic suspension of traffic on the Rhine in 2018, further reinforces the urgency of the European Union’s (EU) efforts to develop river transport. Rivers are part of our heritage More than one tonne of goods per EU inhabitant travels on inland waterways every year, the use of which for transport brings in $80 billion [79 milliards d’euros] in the regional economy, according to calculations based on Eurostat data. But the repercussions of drying up rivers don’t stop there. “It’s not just about commercial traffic. [Un cours d’eau] allows you to cool off when it’s hot, water, and so many other things, emphasizes Cécile Avesard, director [territoriale Rhône-Saône] in French waterways. The rivers are part of our heritage”. The current difficulties are likely to cost economies much more than the €5 billion lost during traffic problems on the Rhine in 2018, according to Albert Jan Swart, transport economist at ABN Amro bank. “Water carrying capacity will remain extremely limited until there is enough rain. Add to that the damage in Germany linked to high electricity prices. It all adds up to billions.” Even the most experienced specialists are in shock. Gunther Jaegers, director of a historic river transport group, Reederei Jaegers, says he fell off his chair at the beginning of August when he saw the cost of cargo rise by 30% in one day. “This is unheard of. It’s unbelievable.” Reederei Jaegers and other carriers can increase the rate per ton of cargo, but the low water level forces them to limit the weight of cargoes in order to sail without taking risks. And no one sees any improvement. When you check the weather forecast, “it’s like being in the desert”, sums up Gunther Jaegers. In the south of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, known for its Riesling, the terraced vineyards have toasted. In Cologne, a popular floating restaurant ran aground on the dry river bed. A sandbank appeared about twenty kilometers upstream from Kaub, where there is a difficult passage [et très étroit] near the famous rock of Lorelei. The depth of the river in this town, located west of Frankfurt, is certain to continue to drop, perhaps preventing the passage of barges. [le 17 août, le niveau est descendu à 34 centimètres], according to the Federal Waterways Administration. The Rhine, Europe’s most important river, also allows coal to be transported to German power plants to offset the effects of restricted Russian gas supplies. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government fears the acceleration of river traffic will hamper plans to reopen shuttered power plants, according to people familiar with the matter. A cloudless sky For the towns,
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