Rhine drought making barge transport ‘impossible’ in latest supply chain threat

stacking cargo containers on large barge on the Rhine River

Barge transport in the European Rhine River is becoming a “critical” situation as water levels continue to drop.

Persistent heatwaves across Europe have led to river depth lows near the record of 27 centimetres set in 2018. Experts expect water levels to hover around the 30 – 32 centimetre mark.

On 12 August, trimodal operator Contargo announced that barge navigation would be discontinued on the Upper and Middle Rhine.

“We will position our barge fleet in such a way as to be able to safely unload your containers at one of our terminals. We will do our utmost to continue to transport your containers,” Contargo wrote in its 12 August statement.

“So long as the gauge levels on the Lower Rhine allow inland navigation, we can transport containers via a land bridge between the terminals on the Upper and Middle Rhine and our terminals on the Lower Rhine. However, we must point out that our trucking capacities are limited.”

Measuring point Kaub reports water levels below the 40 centimetre mark, “making barge transport impossible to and from many locations,” comments the latest customer advisory from Maersk.

This is putting additional strain on other modes of transport and additional delays are inevitable at this point, the 16 August Maersk advisory noted.

The Rhine is one of Europe’s most critical inland transport nodes, moving a range of goods from containers to coal and gas.

The advisory also highlighted that on the ocean side, main vessel delays are expected due to the announced eight-day strike action at the UK’s Port of Felixstowe from 21 August until 29 August.

In mainland Europe, negotiations surrounding strike action at German ports, discussions are still ongoing between trade union ver.di and the Central Association of German Seaport Companies (ZDS).

While there was no agreement on 10 August, the parties are scheduled for further talks on 22 August.

Europe’s supply chains have been rocked through the summer by downing of tools from German workers.

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