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The Consequences Of Drought On River Businesses

When we talk about droughts and water shortages, we think about consequences such as hosepipe bans, or the problems for aquatic life caused by dry stream beds. However, there are many businesses that heavily rely on being able to use rivers. These are mostly tourism and leisure businesses in the UK, but some of the largest rivers around the world are also used to transport cargo. In this blog, we take a look at some of the businesses that have already been adversely affected by drought.

The River Rhine

Cargo boats transport around 300 million tonnes of freight a year along the River Rhine. Utilising the 800 mile route that runs through Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands where it meets the North Sea. But in 2022, water levels in the Rhine fell so low, cargo boats were only able to transport three-quarters of capacity, with the rest of the freight being sent via rail.

The shipping giant Maersk uses the Rhine as a freight route because shipping produces significantly less CO2 emissions than road transportation. However, if drought conditions continue to affect river levels – as they are predicted to – freight companies will be forced to find alternative ways of transporting goods. And these may prove more costly in terms of finances and environmental impact.

The Mississippi River

The Mississippi River is the fourth longest river in the world and one of the world’s most important commercial waterways. Around 175 million tonnes of freight are transported along its 2,350 miles every year. The 2022 drought resulted in record low water levels, and the introduction of navigation restrictions which pushed the cost of transporting grain up from $12 a ton to a high of $71 a ton. It has been estimated that the economic damage caused by the drought totalled around $20bn (£16.7bn).

The Yangtze River

In 2022, China experienced its driest summer in 60 years. This severely affected the Yangtze River – the third longest river in the world – which shrank to around half its normal size. This had huge implications for the economy of the river – hydroelectric power production halved at a time when demand for air conditioning soared. This affected the work of factories, some of which had to close because of electricity shortages, disrupting production with a consequent hit on profitability.

How drought affected UK waterways

Although the UK canal network was created specifically to carry freight, our canals and rivers are predominantly used by people for leisure. However, tourism is big business, and the economic value of UK waterways from tourism and jobs is estimated to be around £1.5bn a year.

The hot dry summer of 2022 affected tourism on our inland waterways. Holidaymakers and boat owners were stuck when stretches of our waterways, for example the Leeds-Liverpool canal, were closed because of low water levels. In fact, because of the low rainfall that lasted well into the autumn, many of the stretches that had been closed didn’t reopen until October.

Energy production

Hydroelectricity generation was also affected by falling river levels during the drought. Although there are no statistics for the UK alone, across the UK and Europe as a whole, the generation of electricity from hydropower dropped by 20%. In the UK, small scale and community-based hydroelectric plants generate around a third of the UK’s hydroelectric power, so any drop in river levels is going to have a big impact.