Deepening of the Elbe River will bring more megaliners to the Port of Hamburg

After years of wrangling, the dredging of the Elbe will now get started. Even German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer attended the official kick-off ceremony in Hamburg. Plans call for 40 million cubic metres of silt to be moved by 2021, making the fairway wider and deeper. Thanks to this change, Hapag-Lloyd plans to have even more of its ships sail to Hamburg.

It was the start of the largest river-deepening project in history, as the gigantic suction trunk of the “Scheldt River” slowly sank into the brown water of the Elbe. There is dredging again on this great river, as its fairway will be made even deeper and wider on its path to the North Sea. As part of this effort, up to 40 million cubic metres of silt will be moved over the next few years. Painted a bright green, the “Scheldt River”, a so-called trailing suction hopper dredger, is 116 metres long and 25 metres wide. Together with the “Bonny River” and the “Peter the Great”, it will carry out the dredging work over the next few years.

Hamburg’s port industry has been waiting 17 years for this project to start, as this is how long the initial dredging plans go back. Since the beginning of the planning process, environmentalists and people who fish on the Elbe have been vigorously protesting and filing lawsuits against the project.

While this has been going on, the Port of Hamburg has lost customers. Among the world’s largest ports, Hamburg now only ranks in 19th place. And container ships have only grown larger and larger over time, with the result that some of them are now too big to call at or leave the Hanseatic city. Container handling, too, has been declining for years. For many years, the volume of containers handled annually in the Port of Hamburg stagnated at 9 million.

Now there are many who hope the deepening of the Elbe will lead to a new upsurge in business. “That will help strengthen Hamburg as a location,” says Maximilian Rothkopf, Chief Operations Officer of Hapag-Lloyd.

Hapag-Lloyd is the Port of Hamburg’s largest customer when measured in terms of container handling. In the 2018 financial year, the company handled roughly 1.9 million TEU here, which corresponds to almost a quarter of the port’s total volume. The city offers outstanding infrastructure and excellent hinterland connection, Rothkopf continues, adding that this is another reason why Hapag-Lloyd recently decided to relocate a large part of its North Atlantic services from Bremerhaven to Hamburg. This, in turn, has already led to a noticeable increase in the number of containers being handled in Hamburg’s terminals. Once the dredging operations on the Elbe have been completed, Rothkopf says, “the world’s largest container ships will also be able to reach the City of Hamburg with virtually no limitations.”

About 20 years ago, what was considered a big container ship stretched for 350 metres, had a beam of 46 metres, and could transport 9,000 standard containers (TEU). Today many container ships are 400 metres long and 60 metres wide and can carry 22,000 TEU. Although these ships are calling at the Port of Hamburg more and more frequently, they can only carry a smaller volume of cargo to prevent their draught from becoming too large. This is why the fairway needs to become deeper. And by also making it wider, what is now a one-way street will become a shipping lane that can simultaneously be navigated in both directions.

Michael Westhagemann, Hamburg’s Senator for Economic Affairs, is proud that once the construction efforts are finished, two ships with lengths of up to 400 metres will be able to sail past each other in the so-called “meeting box” at the level of Hamburg’s Wedel district. “This will allow us to manage twice as many ship calls as in the past,” he notes. In fact, Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer estimates that 2,800 rather than 1,400 huge container ships could call at Hamburg each year.

In any case, the project’s planners expect everything to be ready in two years. Starting in 2021, an additional 3 million containers could then be handled in the Port of Hamburg and shipowners wouldn’t have to incur any costs for more ship calls
In future, the Elbe will be deep enough to allows ships with draughts of up to 13.5 metres to navigate to the Port of Hamburg at low tide – and up to 14.5 metres at high tide. This is still not enough for today’s largest ships, whose draughts can sometimes stretch to 15.5 metres. But, in any case, many ships are not fully loaded on their way to Hamburg, as they have already called at several other European ports on their voyage. Particularly on the Asian routes, vessels with capacities of over 20,000 standard containers are almost the only ones used these days. And ships that can carry up to 25,000 TEU are already planned in China.

The ninth deepening of the Elbe is expected to cost around €780 million – or almost as much as the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg’s magnificent new concert hall, did. While the federal government plans to contribute some €490 million, the City of Hamburg expects to cover €286 million of these costs.

Federal Transport Minister Scheuer described the deepening of the Elbe as a project of national importance to Germany as an exporting country. However, the project has sparked heated controversy since 2006 at the latest, when the planning approval process started. Fishermen have fretted about their catches, fruit farmers in the Altes Land region about their harvests, and communities along the Elbe – particularly in the state of Lower Saxony – about the safety of the dikes.
This prompted Manfred Braasch of BUND, the German chapter of the environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, to repeat the complaint at the beginning of the dredging work that the condition of the Elbe had “deteriorated extremely” again in recent years. Smelt fishermen, in particular, are already appalled that their nets are virtually empty. A lawsuit against the infrastructure project is also pending before the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig and will be decided at the beginning of next year.

Already today, there are several far-reaching ecological compensation measures taking place in parallel to the deepening of the Elbe, some of which are in the states of Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony. “The deepening of the Elbe is the best-examined and most expert-scrutinised infrastructure project in Germany,” Scheuer said in response to environmentalists demonstrating at the start of construction work. Thirteen lawsuits and court cases have been decided for good, he continued, and all the concerns of the courts have been dispelled. Hans-Heinrich Witte, president of the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration (WSV), has also pointed out that roughly 15 percent of the total costs of the Elbe deepening project will be spent on environmental-protection and nature-conservation measures.



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