'Tipping Point' Dredging the Elbe Poses Severe Ecological Risk

A Dutch study could put a stop to an already controversial project to deepen the Elbe River, SPIEGEL has learned. It warns that if dredging continues, damage to the river's ecosystem would likely be irreparable.
A container ship on the Elbe River. Experts warn that dredging could lead to a "tipping point."

A container ship on the Elbe River. Experts warn that dredging could lead to a "tipping point."

Foto: Hapag-Lloyd/Rainer Horn/ picture alliance / dpa

A study commissioned by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment means more bad news for proponents of the suspended plan to deepen of the Elbe River. The report confirms that further dredging could result in severe ecological damage.

Entitled "On the response of tidal rivers to deepening and narrowing," the study  notes "the existence of a tipping point, beyond which a tidal river evolves more or less autonomously to a hyper-turbid state." This state would mean irreparable damage to the fish and animal populations.

The report concludes that the Elbe is on the verge of such a "tipping point" and is "very sensitive to small changes," like deepening or narrowing.

The study could deal the final blow to the dredging project. In October 2012, authorities halted the €400 million ($520 million) project to deepen the Elbe River approaching Hamburg to accommodate mega freighters  that require a depth of 14.5 meters (48 feet) or more. However, two environmental organizations -- Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) -- with the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), managed to obtain a temporary injunction from the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig. The judge prevented the start of the dredging project, in part because of a risk of "upsetting the ecosystem" in the Elbe estuary.

Environment vs. Economy

A bitter feud  consequently broke out. Politicians, shipping and port companies and even the trade union Verdi, which represents the dockworkers, criticized the environmental organizations for their litigiousness. They all worry that failing to deepen the Elbe could jeopardize the harbor's competitiveness as a job creator and economic engine. In that region of northern Germany alone, some 150,000 jobs are tied to the harbor. It also generates almost 15 percent of Hamburg's net product and more than €700 million in taxes annually.

Verdi even made an ecological argument. If the river isn't dredged, they argued, shipping firms with larger vessels could move their business to other European ports, like Rotterdam in the neighboring Netherlands, and the highways would in turn be further burdened by truck traffic.

The issue "has nothing to do with ecological responsibility," the union said, adding that they were surprised and alarmed that the environmental groups were simply accepting this assessment. The ministry of transport in Berlin also intervened -- albeit unsuccessfully -- in the conflict. But now the opponents of the dredging project are getting a further boost.

The report may crush any last hope of finding a way to deepen the river with tactics like one from the German Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration (WSV), which had been considering an enlargement of the Elbe estuary through the addition of dykes to preserve more natural space. This plan, however, still included a deepening of the channel by a further meter to accommodate container ships with a loaded draft of up to 14.5 meters.

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