The Rhine: A Perfect Symbol of Our Climate Folly

Via New Republic, an article on the Rhine, German river once subjected to a massive nineteenth-century engineering project to facilitate coal transport, which now needs engineers to intervene again due to global warming partially caused by global warming related to coal transported on the mighty river:

Germany is trying to save the Rhine. “Save,” in this case, means keep the river navigable for cargo ships.

As recently reported by The New York Times in a detailed feature, climate change is increasingly threatening the Rhine’s water levels. The same can be said of many other waterways across the globe, but the Rhine’s periodic low-water events in particular seem to be getting more frequent and more severe. The economic effects could be dire: “Up to 80 percent of Germany’s ship-bound cargo,” the Times’ Christopher Schuetze wrote, “[is] transported on the Rhine on [its] way to not only the south of the country, but also to parts of France, Switzerland and, over the Main-Danube Canal, Eastern Europe.” The cost of low water has been substantial: In 2018, an estimated 12 billion euros were lost; this past summer that figure came to about 8 billion euros, largely due to disrupted coal shipments.

Naturally, engineers have been dispatched to find a way to make the waterway more drought-resistant. For students of history, though, there’s a certain irony to this 180 million euro project to deepen the river at several crucial junctures: For hundreds of years before this, the primary threat presented by the Rhine was flooding. And the Rhine’s reputation as a prime commercial waterway today is itself the product of an even more massive feat of engineering than today’s climate-adaptation project. That feat, from nearly 200 years ago, also came in response to climate disaster.

As historian David Blackbourn wrote in his 2006 book, The Conquest of Nature, the river that inspired generations of German poets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a fundamentally unpredictable waterway; the Rhine was not a single river but rather a maze of side-arms that became main channels (and vice versa) during seasonal floods, during which the river could also just carve itself an entirely new path through the countryside. This was tricky both for humans in boats—who had to keep changing which path they took—and humans in houses: People who wished to settle on the river chose their site carefully but couldn’t always avoid catastrophe. “The first artificial cut in the river to divert water from a threatened site,” Blackbourn noted, “dated back to 1391.”

The so-called Little Ice Age made this worse. This mysterious cooling period hit Europe sometime around the beginning of the fourteenth century (depending on which interpretation of the data you favor) for reasons that scientists have attributed to volcanic eruptions, decreased solar radiation, or diseases killing off a lot of people (again, depending on which interpretation of the data you favor). What’s not disputed is its effects. Summers in the second half of the eighteenth century were extremely wet in Central Europe, and on the Rhine, Blackbourn wrote, floods “arrived around once every three years between the ‘great winter’ of 1740 and the floods of 1786, then virtually every year from 1799 to 1808.”


Unsurprisingly, this was deemed neither safe nor convenient—particularly for rapidly industrializing territories along the river that would have really loved the Rhine to serve as a liquid highway instead of a seasonal crisis. And so, in the nineteenth century, engineers and teams of laborers started systematically bypassing some of the river’s bends to straighten its path, drain its swamps, and generally make the Rhine look the way many in the so-called “modern” world thought a river should look. “This was,” Blackbourn wrote, “the largest civil engineering project that had ever been undertaken in Germany.” From the decades of disruption, the Rhine region received a major economic boost (as well as a reduction in malaria—although whether that was due to Rhine engineering or other factors is open to debate). It lost some good fishing, in addition to the gold deposits that today register to most people as merely mythical—the stuff of Wagner’s famous Rhinegold opera.

The engineering of the Rhine didn’t begin with this nineteenth-century project, and it didn’t end with it either. The most recent “major” Rhine engineering project, the Times noted, was in 1995. But much of the way the river looks today, as well as our expectations of its economic productivity, is a product of that nineteenth-century makeover.

In a sense, the effort to “save” the Rhine today is just an extension of this complex history of human intervention—something that’s mentioned specifically in Unesco’s entry on the Upper Middle Rhine Valley on why it qualifies as a World Heritage site. But today’s Rhine crisis also represents a bleak reversal of the eighteenth-century conditions that prompted the first major intervention. The coal that the reengineered Rhine helped transport, when burned, created some of the emissions that have since heated the world to its present point, spawning the conditions for today’s persistent droughts. It would be more ironic still if today’s engineers successfully drought-harden the river—much as their earlier counterparts sought to flood-harden it—only to see those coal shipments continue.

This entry was posted on Friday, November 18th, 2022 at 9:32 am and is filed under Germany, Rhine.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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