Scarcity of Water Strands Cargo Riverboats

Drought Hits River Cargo Shipping Hard

Ann Christina Sloek-Andersen warns that worsening droughts are causing shipping corporations to pull out of some of the most important river trade routes throughout the world.

At the multinational shipping conglomerate Maersk, Ms Sloek-Andersen serves as a senior director.

She explains that “[this past summer] we had to convert a lot of freight from river to rail in Europe” because otherwise “the huge German industry clusters in Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, and Hessen would not have been connected to the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp.”

Lack of Water Stops River Cargo Boats in Their Tracks
High and Dry: Drought Affects River Cargo Transportation

On the expansive Rhine River, which travels almost 1,300 kilometres from Switzerland to the Netherlands before emptying into the North Sea, cargo riverboats regularly carry more than 300 million metric tons of goods each and every year. The Rhine River begins its journey in Switzerland.

However, because of the record low water levels that occurred during the summer months of the previous year, some vessels were only able to carry 25% of their normal weight. This was done so that they would not risk running aground on the riverbed. This resulted in significant delays in shipping.

According to Ms Sloek-Andersen, “there are a lot of well-known blue-chip enterprises located in Germany and Switzerland… that rely on interior waterways to bring raw materials and goods in and out of the country.”

The riverboats owned and operated by Maersk transport a wide variety of goods, including temperature-sensitive perishables like fresh produce and pharmaceuticals, raw materials like chemicals, and components for automobiles and other types of technology.

According to Ms Sloek-Andersen, “We carry the merchandise of our customers on barges wherever possible” because doing so results in significantly fewer carbon dioxide emissions than using trucks.

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Nevertheless, Maersk claims that it was able to “step in with extra capacity” when the levels of the Rhine dropped during the summer of last year because it had established connections with rail companies.

According to Ms Sloek-Andersen, rail is the favoured choice for the river because both methods have a comparable low CO2 footprint. The CO2 footprint of rail is approximately 20-30g of CO2 per tonne-km per year (gCO2e/tkm), whereas the CO2 footprint of trucks is almost 140 gCO2e/tkm.

She does mention that other businesses were forced to transition to using road freight.

In addition, Europe was not the only region that experienced a severe drought in the previous year.

According to Sarah Schiffling, a specialist in supply chain management and an assistant professor at the Hanken School of Economics in Helsinki, Finland, “you could stroll across the huge Mississippi River; that’s not something we were prepared for.”

The Mississippi River is utilized to move more than 500 million tonnes of freight each year; however, it is estimated that the record low water levels that occurred in 2017 caused economic damage that amounted to $20 billion (£16.7 billion).

“According to Professor Schiffling, droughts are not a recent occurrence; but, in the past year, they were observed in several regions all over the world at the same time. It had a significant bearing on the transport of goods inside the country.”

Ships were not allowed to navigate some stretches of the Yangtze River in China because water levels were more than fifty percent lower than normal. The provinces that border the Yangtze River are responsible for forty-five percent of the total production of the Chinese economy.

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During this same time period, two-thirds of Europe was affected by drought conditions in the year 2022, when the continent endured its most severe drought in at least 500 years.

The news comes as research reveals that conditions of drought are only projected to intensify in the years ahead.

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