BASF is arming itself against the next drought with special ships
WIf the river doesn’t carry water, the company has a problem. When the Rhine even had to be closed several times at its narrow point near Kaub below the Loreley, this cost the chemical giant BASF a quarter of a billion euros in profit.
That was in 2018. At that time, the largest chemical company in the world started a program to prevent such losses from happening again: it installed an early warning system and more than doubled the number of low-water vessels rented. And it had its own new ship developed, the bei low tide can transport significantly more than conventional models.
This Friday he officially presented the first specimen: the “Stolt Ludwigshafen”. Specially built to keep the existential transport route between the main plant in Ludwigshafen and the North Sea port of Rotterdam open even at low tide. It is 135 meters long and 17.5 meters wide – longer and wider than conventional barges. According to the company, thanks to its lightweight construction, it can still transport 800 tons even at a water depth of 1.60 meters – which corresponds to the low level 30 near Kaub.
Hull from China, cooperation with shipping company Stolt
According to BASF, at “moderate low water” it is 2,300 tons, twice as much as a conventional inland waterway vessel. The hull was built in China, developed and completed by the group together with the large shipping company Stolt. BASF is keeping a low profile on the costs.
It is clear that the group is paying a lot for its resilience to severe weather events. “Our climate analyzes for the location show that there will be a significant increase in heat waves, that precipitation will increase in winter and decrease, especially in summer. A direct consequence of this is an increasing risk of low water, especially in late summer,” said BASF meteorologist Max Bangert in summer 2021 of the FAZ
The Rhine continues to be of existential importance for the group, whose huge company premises meander along the river between “Rhine kilometers 426 and 433”. The group operates three of its own ports, and around 40 percent of all shipments are made by water. In particular, raw materials from the North Sea reach the plant in this way.
Water is an important raw material for production
In addition to transport, the Rhine has another important function: the chemical companies need its water to cool their plants, another smaller part as “process water”, for example as a solvent or reaction medium. According to the industry association VCI, the chemical industry is by far the largest industrial water consumer. He points out that the industry has kept water consumption more or less constant in recent years, although production has increased by a good 40 percent since 1995.
In addition to the possible low water, there is the problem of the “heat load”. If the oxygen concentration in the river drops, the companies also have a problem. They are only allowed to direct cooling water back into the river at a fixed, slightly higher temperature. In case of doubt, authorities can limit the discharge.
Today, not only the temperature is measured, the pollutants in the waste water are also closely monitored. The times when the Rhine from Basel to Ludwigshafen turned red, and everything in it died because the fire brigade in Basel discharged the water used to extinguish a chemical fire into the river are over. The water quality has improved significantly, nobody talks about cloaca anymore. However, Greenpeace recently complained about the growing pollution of the river with microplastics.
Industry needs rivers
The European chemical industry would be unthinkable without the Rhine. Roche, Novartis and Lonza in Basel, then Clariant in Muttenz, in Germany BASF, Bayer, Evonik, Lanxess, Covestro – the who’s who of chemical and pharmaceutical companies still produce along the river to this day. When these companies were founded a hundred and more years ago, a location away from the water was simply not possible, and little has changed to this day. A barge transports more goods than a train.
In 2019, the Federal Ministry of Transport therefore decided on a whole series of measures in its “Low Water Rhine” action plan to secure the transport route. The most important, but at the same time the most controversial, is a further deepening of the shipping channel between St. Goar and Mainz.
But it will probably be a while before the excavators arrive. At the end of the decade at the earliest, it was said by those involved. BASF says they are glad that the federal and state governments have recognized the issue of navigability of the Rhine. “Now we wish for a speedy implementation of the major project without further delays.”