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Low water in 2020: Small level, big impact

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You’d think in 2020 we’d be up to our necks in water. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Germany’s inland waters. For years, the long periods of drought have led to low water levels in spring and summer. If the lack of precipitation continues, a period of low water must be expected from May 2020 onwards. 


Therefore, we would like to warn you now that, in the coming weeks and months, low water levels and the associated small water surcharges (KWZ) may occur again and again. 


To give you a better overview, we offer you the current small water surcharges on this page. These are based on the size of the containers. In addition, you can view the historical water levels of the respective gauges on which our KWZ are based.


Traffic shift in 2018 and 2019


Last year 205.1 million tons of goods were transported on inland waterway vessels in Germany. According to the Federal Association of German Inland Navigation (BDB), this represents an increase of 3.6 percent compared to 2018. The capacity utilisation of inland navigation was strengthened with an increase of 8.6 percent compared to the previous year and amounted to 50.9 billion tonne-kilometres. This at least partially compensated for the loss from 2018. 


Looking back: in 2018, volumes had fallen to 197.9 million tonnes due to the severe low water. Cargo ships could only be loaded to two thirds or less. On the Rhine alone there were 132 days of low water. That has never happened before. All water levels showed historic lows. For many companies, transport costs rose immensely.


Container transport on inland waterways fell in 2019 compared to 2018 by 4.1 percent to 2.27 million tonnes. In the coal, crude oil and natural gas segment, a minus of 11.1 percent to 10.1 million tonnes was recorded. This is mainly due to the fact that more and more forwarders are using notes instead of waterways and are bound by long-term contracts. Twenty years ago, the share of inland waterway transport was only 13 percent; today it is only eight percent and the lost share has gone in favour of truck transport. Quite apart from the fact that the declining volumes of coal transport are also showing the first consequences of the energy change in Germany. 


Inland navigation in climate change


Although the water levels in April 2020 are not yet in the extreme small water range, they are still well below the normal value that would be normal for this time of year. Although the winter months, some of which have a high level of precipitation, have led to a partial recovery of groundwater levels in the Rhine basin, the snow reserves in the Alps are below average. These snow reserves are important because they slowly melt away over the summer months and would actually balance out the water levels. 


This shows that climate change is not stopping at our local waters either. We run the risk of losing an important transport route because it simply dries up. Slight disruptions in shipping have already existed since March 2020, and in some cases small water surcharges are already being applied to compensate for the lower loading of ships. 


In principle, low water, like floods, is a natural phenomenon that is unavoidable. Nevertheless, the ecosystem around the river must also be taken into account. This is because low water often goes hand in hand with high temperatures, which leads to low oxygen content in the water and thus has an impact on the native flora and fauna. 


The situation is particularly dramatic in Saxony-Anhalt. Only 5.7 million tons of goods, 1.1 percent less than in 2018, were handled in Saxony-Anhalt in 2019. The second largest river that crosses Germany, the Elbe, is not navigable for a large part of the year. In July 2019 the water level was just 45 centimetres, which means knee height, and thus broke a new low water record. This is because at least 110 centimetres are actually required to navigate the Elbe. 


At the same time, domestic ship transport within Germany is climate-friendly and would be preferable to truck transport. This is because the CO2 emissions are similar to those of the railways and therefore significantly lower than those of a truck. An inland vessel replaces 80 to 100 trucks, which makes it attractive for logistics companies and freight forwarders.


Around 85 percent of all goods transported by water, whether containers, cement, coal or scrap metal, are shipped via Germany’s “water highway,” the Rhine. This was straightened and deepened in the 1960s. But the development of the rivers and canals in eastern Germany is lagging behind and, unlike the Rhine, Moselle or Ruhr, the Elbe is still natural in most places. This raises the question: Do we want to continue to use our waters as waterways? What exactly should the expansion look like? Because the expansion of the East German waterways must of course not ignore the ecological aspects. 


What is behind the small water surcharge


Long-lasting periods of low water levels cause great problems for the local shipping companies, because sinking water levels mean that the loading capacity on inland waterway vessels is reduced. The ships may no longer be loaded 100 percent. Otherwise they run the risk of running aground. This in turn means that more ship space is needed for the same amount of cargo. This causes costs to skyrocket, as additional capacity must be created in addition to the lower capacity utilisation. The whole thing is a milkmaid’s calculation: if levels continue to fall, the market will become tighter. 


Shipping companies therefore charge additional fees to compensate for this additional burden. The so-called small water surcharge (KWZ) is charged by the shipowner to the shipper in case of low or small water levels. This usually occurs in summer time during longer periods of heat and drought. Interesting to know: There is no shipping ban due to low water. However, you can certainly imagine that for ecological reasons it simply does not pay to send the ship out once the water level reaches a certain level. 


Which water levels should you have on your screen?


Level Emmerich

The Emmerich level applies to the Emmerich and Emmelsum-Voerde terminals. It measures the water level of the Rhine. 


Here you can find our KWZ for the gauge Emmerich:

Level Emmerich

Rhine km 851.9

KWZ per 20′ full KWZ per 40′ full
70 – 61 cm 20,00 € 40,00 €
60 – 51 cm 25,00 € 50,00 €
50 – 41 cm 30,00 € 60,00 €
40 – 31 cm 40,00 € 80,00 €
From 30cm and below Free agreement


Gauge Kaub

The Kaub gauge is the most important gauge for inland navigation along the Rhine and applies to all terminals south of Koblenz. The Kaub gauge is valid up to Basel. 


Here you can find our KWZ for the gauge Kaub:

Kaub gauge

Rhine km 546.3

KWZ per 20′ full KWZ per 40′ full
150 – 131 cm 30,00 € 40,00 €
130 – 111 cm 45,00 € 60,00 €
110 – 101 cm 60,00 € 75,00 €
100 – 91 cm 75,00 € 100,00 €
90 – 81 cm 100,00 € 135,00 €
From 80 cm and below Free agreement

Gauge Duisburg-Ruhrort

The Duisburg-Ruhrort gauge applies to the city of Duisburg and all terminals southeast of Wesel to Cologne. It also measures the water level of the Rhine. 


Here you can find our KWZ for the gauge Duisburg-Ruhrort:

Water level 


Rhine km 780.8

KWZ per 20′ full KWZ per 40′ full
270 – 251 cm 25,00 € 35,00 €
250 – 221 cm 45,00 € 65,00 €
220 – 201 cm 65,00 € 85,00 €
200 – 181 cm 90,00 € 110,00 €
From 180 cm and below Free agreement


Level Cologne 

The Cologne gauge applies to the terminals Bonn up to and including Andernach.


Here you can find our KWZ for the gauge Cologne:

Level Cologne

Rhine km 613.8 km

KWZ per 20′ full KWZ per 40′ full
195 – 176 cm 35,00 € 45,00 €
175 – 146 cm 50,00 € 70,00 €
145 – 126 cm 70,00 € 90,00 €
125 – 106 cm 95,00 € 115,00 €
From 105 cm and under Free agreement


Would you like to set sail despite low water?

Forto is the co-pilot for your inland transports. With our simple booking platform, you can handle your global transports including on-carriage by inland waterway vessel in Germany easily and efficiently. Find out more about our current small water surcharges and view the historical water levels of the important gauges. Contact us here for a non-binding consultation