Climate change and economic consequences for inland waterway transport in Europe


Future climate conditions are likely to affect inland waterway transport in Europe. According to some climate scenarios, in summer, in the river Rhine, periods with low water levels are likely to occur more often and become more serious. Then inland waterway transport carriers will experience more severe restrictions on the load factor of their inland ships, which implies a stronger reduction in transport capacity in the market. Transport prices will rise under such conditions. Some studies reviewed in this paper find that at extremely low water levels, the price per tonne for inland waterway transport in the river Rhine area will almost double. These increased transport prices result in welfare losses. For the dry summer in 2003, the losses for North West Europe are estimated to sum up to around €480 million. Increased transport prices trigger adaptation. Inland waterway carriers may use smaller vessels, and shippers have the opportunity to shift from inland waterway transport to alternative transport modes in periods with low water levels. This effect is probably rather modest, however, with a modal shift to road and rail smaller than 10 %. Also, changes in transport costs may lead to relocation of certain economic activities in the long run.

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  1. 1.

    In addition, the largest part of inland waterway transport in Europe (measured in tonnes) takes place on the river Rhine (CCNR 2007). The most important inland waterways in North America are the Great Lakes and the Mississippi river and its major tributaries.

  2. 2.

    For a review of studies focusing on effects of climate change and weather conditions on all transport modes covering both freight transport and traveler transport, we refer to Koetse and Rietveld (2009). This study focuses on inland waterway transport only.

  3. 3.

    River dikes are heavily put to the test in periods of high water levels, and they may break as a result of the extra pressure inland waterway vessels impose on these dikes during high water levels.

  4. 4.

    The Rhine fleet is defined as the fleets of the Rhine countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, France and Switzerland.

  5. 5.

    Ideally, we would have shown the figures in Table 4 for the individual Rhine countries. However, these data are not available without double counting. Nevertheless, it can be said with certainty that more than 90 % of the total number of tonnes transported on inland waterways in the EU27 is transported within the six Rhine countries.

  6. 6.

    This market comprises inland waterway traffic on the Rhine in Germany (including Dutch–German border-crossing traffic) plus traffic on the Moselle.

  7. 7.

    The Northwestern European inland waterway transport market comprises the Rhine market, the Dutch domestic market, the North German market and the so-called north–south market (inland waterway traffic between the Netherlands, Belgium and France).

  8. 8.

    Note that in a strict sense, this is not a problem related to climate change, but it can be used to estimate the effects of a blockage of rivers due to high water.

  9. 9.

    For a comparison, the largest inland port in Europe, Duisburg, transshipped 125 million tonnes in 2011 (TLN 2012).

  10. 10.

    Also, this case is not related to climate change but can be used to estimate the effects of a blockage of rivers due to extreme water.

  11. 11.

    Note that the benefits are highest in the most extreme KNMI’06 climate scenario.

  12. 12.

    Also, indirect and external effects are not included in the analysis, and the benefits are based on the assumption that water levels representing the most extreme climate scenario become normal.

  13. 13.

    The difference in dominant absorption mode (road or rail) may be explained because the two studies focus on different areas in the Rhine area. The Krekt et al.’s (2011) study focuses on the Netherlands (with the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam being major nodes) where, compared to the Jonkeren et al.’s (2011a, b) study—which focuses on middle Germany—more origin and destination nodes for rail transport are present. Consequently, rail transport likely is a cheaper alternative for inland waterway transport in Krekt et al. (2011).

  14. 14.

    In the very long run, when plants have to be rebuilt anyhow, relocation may be a more favorable adaptation option.


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This paper is written within the context of the Dutch national research programs Climate changes Spatial Planning and Knowledge for Climate. These climate research programs were initiated by the Dutch government to support research regarding adaptation and land use-related mitigation strategies to climate change in the Netherlands.

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Correspondence to Piet Rietveld.

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Jonkeren, O., Rietveld, P., van Ommeren, J. et al. Climate change and economic consequences for inland waterway transport in Europe. Reg Environ Change 14, 953–965 (2014).

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  • Climate change
  • Inland waterway transport
  • Transport costs