Effects of climate change on inland waterway networks

Assessing the impact of climate change on EU inland waterway transport networks properly requires the efforts of researchers from scientific domains that rarely overlap (climatologists, meteorologists, hydrologists, waterway infrastructure managers, ship builders, economists and transport network experts). The main challenge in ECCONET was to coordinate these efforts in a manner that the outcomes are correct, reliable, with a sufficient degree of certainty and most of all clear and understandable for policy makers, stakeholders, industries and the general public.

ECCONET specifically addressed the topic of adaptation to climate change, taking Inland Waterway Transport (IWT) as a case-study. The project addressed both the impacts of climate change on inland waterways as well as adaptation measures.

The specific strategic objectives of the ECCONET project were:

  • Provide a coherent overview of the impacts of climate change on the inland waterway transport system, the affected transport network and the sectors of the shipping industry as well as the shippers themselves;
  • Identify, analyse and assess adaptation strategies for improved operation of inland waterway vessels under climate change conditions, leading to targeted recommendations, policy guidelines and a development plan for the IWT mode;
  • Communicate the results of the project to a wider range of stakeholders, industries, policy makers and the general public, in a way that contributes to a sustainable future for IWT.

The first step of the ECCONET project was to assess the navigation conditions in the future on the Rhine – Main – Danube corridor, as projected by currently available climate models. As there is no single best climate model, ECCONET uses many different models to assess the current state of knowledge on climate change, including its uncertainty band. This band is sampled by selecting relatively dry and relatively wet climate models as scenarios. The wet and dry scenarios reflect the range of possible future navigation conditions with special emphasis to low water situations.

Low water level situations are emphasised because it was proven empirically (cost and freight).the situation on the Rhine river in 2003) to have the most impact on inland waterway transport While both high and low water levels pose problems for navigation, low water conditions can involve problems for passage of (mainly) larger freight ships for longer periods of time, reducing their loading capacity. High water can lead to bans for navigation during short time periods (1 – 2 days).

Other climate related changes, such as changed ice formation or a change in visibility due to fog, are assessed only briefly in ECCONET. The target period for the simulation is 2021-2050. Projections with respect to navigation conditions in the “far future” are provided for the period 2071-2100. All future changes are expressed with reference to a “control period” from 1961 to 1990.

Parallel to the research on navigation conditions, ECCONET has studied the availability of adaptation measures for the sector. These were subdivided into 4 classes: ship and operation related measures, infrastructure works, improved prediction methods and changes in logistics and stock keeping.

In a third step, ECCONET aimed to understand the impacts of climate change on the transport sector. The geographic multi modal transport model NODUS was applied to estimate the effects of climate change on the modal choice and the use of the different types of boats.

In its analysis of climate change impacts, ECCONET focused on a detailed study of climate models and their input to hydrology. Unlike other related climate change impact projects, ECCONET derived its results from a large spectrum of climate scenarios and not from one specific extreme scenario. This results in a balanced view on the future navigability of the Rhine-Main-Danube waterway area. Performing a transport economic analysis on the basis of the predicted evolution of navigability, it was demonstrated that the possible climate changes from 2005 to 2050 and their impact on the Rhine market, as modelled by two long term dry and wet scenarios, are not likely to be strong enough to trigger any significant shift in modal shares away from inland waterway transportation. In fact, it is more likely that the impact of transport-economic background conditions, such as the price of fuel, will outweigh the impact of climate change. For the longer term (up to 2100), climate change could affect transport conditions more significantly. Due to the limited value of economic projections so far into the future, however, no assessment was made.

In parallel, ECCONET aimed to identify a number of adaptation measures. These fell broadly into 4 classes: technology and operational measures, infrastructure and maintenance, production and logistics processes, and improved water level forecasting. These adaptation measures were verified by a combination of literature review, transport economic modelling, cost-effectiveness analysis, and stakeholder consultation.

  • In the class of ship- and operations- related measures, the most promising measures involve weight reduction technologies and the use of coupled convoys (especially on the River Rhine). More experimental approaches exist, such as the use of adjustable tunnels, flat hulls (for towboats) and inflatable aprons, but their benefit in terms of the expected climate change could not be proven. Flexible 24-hour operation of ships that are currently only operating for 12 hours was not beneficial, due to high labour costs.
  • In terms of infrastructure measures it was concluded that large infrastructural works are not justified with respect to climate change. This is caused by the large investment costs and the limited benefit of such projects until 2050. Even under current conditions, however, there is a strong need for improved maintenance of the waterways, especially on the Danube.
  • Improved forecasting, for example in the form of a seasonal forecast of water levels, is the responsibility of governmental agencies. While a reliable forecast of this type is very hard to make, any improvement in this type of forecasting is considered very valuable to the sector.
  • As for the change of production processes and stock keeping, it was observed that the forwarder/shipper will usually wait out a dry period, or use presently available storage capacity. If problems persist, the shipper will consider using another mode of transport, generally railway freight, which is a more costly and inflexible solution. Investment in stock keeping and relocation is only considered as a last resort.


While the expected climate change impact until the middle of the century does not justify large investments in costly adaptation measures under the navigability conditions predicted at present,  the importance of good waterway maintenance for a smooth continuation of waterway transport on the Rhine and Danube rivers should be stressed. Furthermore, the trend towards increasingly large vessels on the Rhine, as the benefit of increased carrying capacity may disappear under drier conditions is questioned based on the project results. The various technical and operational measures under development are highlighted,which may, while not being cost-effective today, reduce the vulnerability of inland shipping to the natural variation in weather conditions in the near future. The limitations of this study should be recognised, as results indicate that beyond 2050 the effects of climate change may intensify. In conclusion, there is a need to constantly monitor the state of the rivers, and further research is encouraged. 

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Faculteit der Economische Wetenschappen en Bedrijfskunde, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU-FEWEB) NL
NEA Transport Research and Training NL
Facultés Universitaires Catholiques de Mons (FUCaM) BE
Bundesanstalt für Gewässerkunde (BfG) DE
VITUKI Environmental Protection and Water Management Research Institute Non-profit Company (VITUKI) HU
Országos Meteorológiai Szolgálat (OMSZ) HU
Entwicklungszentrum für Schiffstechnik und Transportsysteme e.V (DST) DE
Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut (KNMI) NL