Europe’s Dry Rivers Put Climate Ambitions at Risk


The bloc’s waterways are a key tool in the fight against climate change — if they don’t fall victim to drought first.

Europe’s rivers are running dry, spelling trouble not only for industries that rely on them to move cargo but also for the EU’s climate ambitions.

As part of its bid to slash transport emissions by 90 percent by mid-century, the EU wants to shift more cargo off roads and onto its 37,000-kilometer network of inland waterways.

That will become increasingly difficult if water levels on the bloc’s main rivers and canals continue drop — or become more unpredictable — as a result of climate change impacts like drought.

Earlier this year, low water levels restricted shipping along the Rhine, one of Europe’s most important waterways, causing major disruptions that economists warned would slow Germany’s economic recovery. Similar issues plagued the shipping sector in 2018 and again last year, when major drops in water levels forced companies to shift cargo off rivers— a logistically complex and expensive move that hit the economy. 

Experts warn the disruption is a foretaste of more to come, with recent rainfall only bringing temporary relief.

The Rhine and its tributaries have seen “continuously low water levels” in summer over the past five or six years as a result of “extreme changes, especially regarding precipitation” brought on by climate change, said Robert Egeling, managing director of a research and education center run by conservation group NABU in Bingen am Rhein, Germany.

He expects more of the same in the future, explaining that low rainfall and melting Alpine glaciers mean the Rhine is likely to “have longer phases of low water levels.”

That’s likely to cause headaches across the board, from farmers who rely on rivers to irrigate their fields to nuclear power plants that draw on river water for cooling. 

It also risks throwing a major spanner in the works of Brussels’ plans to “seize the untapped potential” of the bloc’s waterways to cut its CO2 emissions from transport.

If water levels on Europe’s main rivers don’t return to sufficient levels within “a sensible time frame … then we need to abandon those waterways,” warned Sandor Nemethy, a researcher at the department of conservation of the University of Gothenburg. 

Shipping goals in jeopardy

Industry is bracing for the worst.

In the EU, inland navigation is concentrated in countries near the Rhine or the Danube like Romania, Bulgaria and the Netherlands — where barges accounted for nearly 42 percent of Dutch inland freight transport in 2021.

Brussels aims to increase inland waterway transport by a quarter by 2030 and 50 percent by 2050. But according to Eurostat, the actual outcome was a 10 percent drop in 2022 from 2021 levels.

A presentation prepared for the main body that manages navigation on the Rhine warned of “longer extreme drought periods and more extreme events.”

That’s casting a shadow over inland waterways, which allow for transport that’s relatively green, efficient and, while slower, tends to be predictable, said Godfried Smit, secretary-general of the European Shippers’ Council.

Following repeated droughts, he said: “A number of our members have wondered, all the way up to the boardrooms, are we still safe with a … focus on inland shipping?”

Low water levels mean ships can carry less cargo, leaving companies with a storage problem and unhappy clients, while also exacerbating congestion issues in ports, according to Smit. Companies that have reserved shipping capacity can’t easily shift to rail at short notice, he said.

The European Commission is worried, too.

Disruptions to traffic on the bloc’s inland waterways “significantly hinder” efforts to “attract more freight volumes away from road transport,” said Commission spokesperson Adalbert Jahnz.

There are no easy fixes, according to Smit. He pointed to interventions to build up water reserves, widening rivers, improving infrastructure and ongoing work to reduce ships’ draught, but warned that small shipowners could have trouble financing new vessels.

With expectations on the sector “pretty high,” the EU needs to “make it possible … to meet them,” said Smit.

As water levels drop, the bloc’s efforts to move more freight onto rivers also risk clashing with its environmental goals. 

According to the bloc’s water law, all rivers should have good chemical and ecological status by 2027 — yet out of 21 river basins analyzed by the WWF, 90 percent are unlikely to be healthy by then. 

Falling water levels and soaring temperatures are already making that goal harder to reach. Prolonged periods of low water are causing the Rhine to be increasingly cut off from neighboring floodplains — meaning habitats “dry out more and more” and “animal and plant species and communities no longer have a chance to survive,” said Egeling.

But deepening and widening rivers to keep them navigable risks harming already fragile ecosystems, campaigners and scientists warn. 

Tensions over which goal to prioritize have come to a head on the Oder River, one of the bloc’s last near-natural rivers, running along the German-Polish border. 

Warsaw and Berlin struck a deal in 2015 to turn the Oder into a highly regulated river open to barges and tourist traffic, but the two capitals are now at loggerheads over how to proceed following a massive fish die-off last summer. Experts say the disaster was likely caused by industrial discharges into the water on the Polish side.

At a conference in June, German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke reiterated her calls to revisit the agreement, arguing that the river needs to recover from the pollution incident — which was exacerbated by high temperatures and low water levels. She stressed that climate-related conditions, including drought risks, have changed.

Poland doesn’t agree.

Commission spokesperson Jahnz said if a waterway projects worsens a river’s ecological status, then it can only be authorized under specific conditions. 

Shifting more cargo to inland water navigation needs to be done in a sustainable way that’s compatible with EU water laws, he stressed, adding that increased water traffic would also require measures to curb water pollution and respect ecosystems.

Campaigners warn that politicians aren’t paying sufficient attention to the environmental impact of the equation.

“There is an awareness that climate change will pose enormous challenges to the water available,” said Sascha Maier, water policy officer at German NGO BUND. “But I don’t see that translating into action yet.”

Source : Politico