river cargo boat


Cargo riverboats are left high and dry by droughts.

Ann Christina Sloek-Andersen warns that rising droughts are forcing shipping companies to abandon some of the world’s most important river cargo routes.

Maersk, a global shipping conglomerate, has a senior director named Ms. Sloek-Andersen.

“[Last summer] we had to switch a lot of cargo from river to rail in Europe,” she says, “in order to keep the big German industry clusters in Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria and Hessen connected to the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp.”

On the vast Rhine River, which runs for almost 800 miles from Switzerland to the Netherlands before joining the North Sea, cargo riverboats typically transport more than 300 million tonnes of goods annually.

However, due to record-low water levels in the summer of 2013, some vessels could only carry 25% of their usual load to avoid running aground on the riverbed. Shipping was severely impacted as a result.

“There are lots of well-known German and Swiss blue-chip companies… that rely on inland waterways to get raw materials and products in and out,” says Ms Sloek-Andersen.

The items that Maersk’s riverboats carry include pharmaceuticals, fresh produce that is sensitive to temperature, raw materials like chemicals, and components for automobiles and machinery.

“We carry our customers’ cargo on barges wherever possible,” says Ms Sloek-Andersen, “because it means far less CO2 emissions compared to trucks.”

Maersk, on the other hand, claims that because of its existing partnerships with rail providers, they were able to “jump in with extra capacity” when the Rhine’s levels dropped last summer.

According to Ms. Sloek-Andersen, rail is preferred to the river because it emits approximately 20-30 g of CO2 per tonne-kilometer per year (gCO2e/tkm) less CO2 than trucks, which emit nearly 140 gCO2e/tkm.

She adds, however, that other businesses were forced to switch to road freight.

Furthermore, Europe was not the only region to experience dry conditions last year.

“You could walk across the mighty Mississippi River – that’s not something we were prepared for,” says Sarah Schiffling, a supply chain expert, and assistant professor at Hanken School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland.

Over 500 million tons of freight are transported annually by the Mississippi River, but record low water levels were estimated to have caused $20 billion (£16.7 billion) in economic damage last year.

“Droughts are not a new phenomenon,” says Prof Schiffling, “but [last year] we saw droughts in multiple areas across the world, all at the same time. It had a massive impact on inland shipping.”

Due to water levels that were more than 50% below average, parts of the Yangtze River in China were closed to ships. The Yangtze River’s surrounding provinces account for 45% of the country’s economic output.

In the meantime, Europe experienced its worst dry spell in at least 500 years in 2022, with drought conditions affecting two thirds of the continent.

It comes as research indicates that drought conditions will only get worse in the coming years.



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