Climate change and inland navigation

Research: 2017-2021

Climate change affects the water levels of waterways. With knowledge of these effects, appropriate measures can be taken to keep waterways navigable.



Climate change has an effect on the water levels of inland waterways and the duration of high and low water periods. There is a need for an accurate forecasting tool that offers support when making decisions about investments in infrastructure (such as bridges and barrages), the composition of the fleet and choices regarding synchromodality issues (transport by road, rail or water). Because major infrastructural investments are made for periods of at least 50 years, a more accurate forecasting tool is required now to be able to make well-founded decisions and to ensure that the rivers remain available after 2050 for reliable and efficient transport over water.

The research specifically looks at the Rhine route Rotterdam – Duisburg, because there are no dams and locks on this route. (There are 18 bridges, of which 8 in the Netherlands.) Some central questions are: Are more barrages on this route necessary to maintain the water at low tide, due to the effects of climate change? Should existing and new bridges be placed higher according to the expected peaks in water levels? Do ships have to be built differently so that, for example, their draft will be less deep? Should transport partly divert from water to road or rail?


  • Scenarios (1): high water – Knowledge of the development of high water levels as a consequence of climate change makes it clear whether measures are needed. For Rijkswaterstaat, this information is crucial in order to determine how high specific bridges must be placed and if measures such as channelling the river and / or water storage (space for the river) are necessary.
  • Scenarios (2): low water – Knowledge of the development of low water levels due to climate change makes it clear whether measures are needed. Should the loading rate be reduced so that the same ships can continue to sail? Or should we build ships differently in the future so their draft will be less deep? A final question addresses the location of barrages: Is the current location still suitable? Knowledge of the low water levels is therefore crucial.
  • Water level predictor – The research project answers the question of whether a tool can be developed to predict water levels in the rivers more accurately.
  • Logistic concepts – Understanding the consequences of climate change also makes it possible to prepare for these consequences by adjusting logistic concepts. For example: taking measures that enable a more flexible deployment of transport modalities (water, road, rail).


  • Uncertainty in climate scenarios – There is uncertainty about how the climate is changing and about the concrete impact of climate change on water levels of the rivers. Which scenario will actually come true?
  • Implementation of measures in practice – A range of possible measures for each of the scenarios can be chosen. How to compare the options and jointly make choices with different stakeholders (countries, port cities, transporters) and different interests?


Increasing predictability of high and low water levels allows to take measures and thus to prepare for these fluctuations in water levels in order to remain easily accessible.
As a result, the port of Rotterdam can continue to offer all synchromodal opportunities in the future and will stay competitive in that respect.


Central Bureau for Rhine and Inland Navigation (Centraal Bureau voor de Rijn- en Binnenvaart , CBRB), Danser, Dutch Association of Inland Ports (Nederlandse Vereniging van Binnenhavens, NVB), Deltares, Inland Shipping Expertise and Innovation Center (Expertise- en Innovatiecentrum Binnenvaart , EICB), Port of Rotterdam Authority, Rijkswaterstaat.

‘This PhD-research is of utmost importance to obtain insights into the effect of climate change on inland navigation and the mitigating actions needed.’

Otto Koedijk

Senior Advisor Shipping and Waterways, Rijkswaterstaat

‘Adaptation to climate change is not a choice. Climate change is a fact and, for that reason, the impact on the waterways should be taken seriously.’

Milou Wolters

Senior Advisor Infrastructure Strategy, Rijkswaterstaat

This project is part of the Futureproof Port Infrastructure roadmap. For more information about this project or this roadmap, please contact project developer Wiebe de Boer.