Germany’s waterways are important international transport routes. Source: Fotolia/Michael Rogner

Germany’s waterways – economic factors and natural areas

As hubs of national and international trade in goods, the waterways, the shipping sector and the ports are of outstanding importance for our economy. The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure is keeping Germany’s waterways in good condition: it makes sure that they are fit for the future and safeguards the balance between ecology and economy.


Do you have any consumer electronics from the Far East at home? Yes? Then it is very likely that your television or smartphone was brought to Germany by sea on a modern container ship, for example up the River Elbe to Hamburg. And what about the fuel for your car? That was probably transported from the United Arab Emirates by ship as crude oil to a refinery in Germany and then on, by inland waterway vessel, to the closest fuel depot as petrol or diesel.
Or what about high-grade ores for Germany’s metal industry? Shipped by sea with bulk carriers from China, Brazil, Australia or India and then right up to the furnace by inland waterway vessel.

Economic capacity of the waterways

Germany is the world's number one centre for logistics. Almost one third of the overall German external trade is handled in German seaports. The share of intercontinental trade even amounts to around 95%. Our maritime economy generates an annual turnover of more than 50 billion euros. Inland waterway navigation, for example on the Rhine, the Danube, the Moselle and the many canals, also contributes to the economic strength of the waterways. Germany’s waterways are important and particularly environmentally friendly transport routes. As a consumer, you benefit from well-planned, maintained and operated waterways. Because our waterways do not only establish links within Germany, but they also connect us to Europe and the world.

Leisure time quality and natural potentials of the waterways

Many people sail, paddle or row on Germany’s federal waterways, or they travel by motorboat or houseboat, in particular on rivers and lakes which are no longer significant with regard to the transport of goods. The Federal Government has launched ambitious plans in terms of the touristic and ecological development of these minor waterways. The federal states, the municipalities, stakeholders in the regions and, of course, all interested citizens will be involved in the drawing-up of relevant development strategies. The intention is to jointly describe the future infrastructures and uses, the nature and scope of maintenance and operation as well as the transport, environmental and other objectives with regard to the minor waterways. In doing so, we would like to do justice to the social and political requirements relating to these waterways and develop leisure time uses while giving more room to nature.

One of the measures stipulated in the FTIP is the deepening of the Kiel Canal. Source: Fotolia/PhotoSG

Waterways in the 2030 Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan – strengthen major routes

The "2030 Federal Transport Infrastructure Plan" (FTIP 2030) contains all investment projects for the roads, railways and waterways which will need to be implemented in the years to come in order to develop our transport infrastructure and make it sustainable and efficient. Moreover, the FTIP 2030 shows which additional investment, inter alia to maintain or replace the transport networks, is needed for the individual transport modes until 2030.

Staged appraisal method

The projects that are to be realized by the Federal Government in the field of waterways have been identified in the staged appraisal procedure of the FTIP: When notifying projects for the FTIP, the federal states, trade associations and the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration were called upon to submit project ideas and proposals for Germany’s federal waterways. From these ideas and proposals, the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport has defined specific projects in cooperation with the Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration. First, a simplified preliminary assessment was carried out as part of the staged appraisal procedure to determine whether the projects can reach the economic break-even point. Some projects for which this was clearly ruled out were not considered in the further assessment. During the next appraisal stage, the main appraisal was undertaken based on the transport development forecast for 2030 using the following criteria:

  • cost-benefit ratio;
  • impact on environmental protection and nature conservation.

In addition to the appraisal results, the final classification of the projects into the requirement categories of the FTIP took into account further factors, for example the improvement of the hinterland connections of German seaports.

Strengthening major routes

The FFederal Ministry for Digital and Transport has defined the most important and most frequently used waterways as the core network. It is essential that this core network be kept functional and efficient at all times so that the environmentally friendly transport by ship on these routes runs smoothly and economically. For this reason, upgrading measures are focused on the waterways of the core network. Here, too, the principle that was defined for all modes of transport in the FTIP applies: capital maintenance investment and investment in replacement infrastructure is given priority over upgrading and new construction measures. As regards the minor network, the focus of the Federal Government is on measures which are required from a security point of view, such as maintaining the structure of or replacing barrages.

Waterways are an environmentally friendly mode of transport

The aim for the German transport policymakers is to bring environmentally friendly inland waterway transport to the forefront. However, sometimes there is no efficient infrastructure that would allow inland waterway vessel operators to ship competitively. Therefore, the Federal Government is also expanding the infrastructure in places where investment might only pay off at a later date. The idea behind this is to motivate private sector investors to invest their money, for example, in better vehicles, in the handling infrastructure or in logistics concepts in order to make greater use of this infrastructure that is funded by the Federal Government.

List of measures

A complete appraisal was conducted for a total of 28 waterway projects in the framework of the FTIP, and the projects were classified into the requirement categories of the FTIP 2030. Details and results of the appraisal of all projects studied can found in the project information system of the FTIP (available in German only).
On this basis, the Federal Waterways Upgrading Act with the requirement plan for the federal waterways was established. During the parliamentary debate on this Act, a few amendments were made to the requirement plan, compared with the FTIP 2030.
As a result of the process, 24 projects with an overall financial volume of 6.5 billion euros were included in the requirement plan as "new projects of first priority". Among them are 7 projects which, based on their appraisal results, were classified as "first priority – removal of bottlenecks" (VB-E), i.e. as being very urgent.

Requirement plan for the federal waterways – Annex to Section 1(1) of the Federal Waterways Upgrading Act, Part 2 "New projects of the first priority (VB-E and VB)."

1Optimize the laden draughts of the fairways on the Middle Rhine
2Deepen the fairways on the Lower Main up to Aschaffenburg
3Adapt the fairways on the Outer Weser
4Deepen the Kiel Canal
5Adapt the fairways on the Lower Weser (south)
6Adapt the fairways on the Lower Weser (north)
7Upgrade the Wesel Datteln Canal up to Marl and construct new replacement "large locks" and construct new, higher replacement bridge
8Deepen the Outer Ems
9Upgrade the Datteln-Hamm Canal (eastern section)
10Realign the Saatsee Curve on the Kiel Canal
11Adapt the seaward approach to the seaport of Rostock
12Upgrade the Danube on the Straubing – Vilshofen section (option A)
13Improve the laden draught and stabilize the bottom on the Rhine between Duisburg and Stürzelberg
14Adapt the seaward approach to the seaport of Wismar
15Adapt the Dortmund-Ems Canal (northern section)
16Upgrade the Havel-Oder Waterway
17Upgrade the Salzgitter Branch Canal including construction of two new replacement locks
18Upgrade the Coastal Canal including construction of two new replacement locks
19Bring forward construction of a new replacement lock at Lüneburg-Scharnebeck on the Elbe Lateral Canal
20Lengthen the locks on the Neckar between Mannheim and Plochingen
21Construct seven 2nd lock chambers on the Moselle
22Upgrade the Elbe-Lübeck Canal
23Upgrade the Hildesheim Branch Canal
24Kleinmachnow Lock on the Teltow Canal (exclusively with regard to its maintenance)
Hamburg's container port is the third largest container port in Europe. Source: Fotolia / davis

Jobs and prosperity: the strength of the maritime cluster

Germany is one of the biggest shipping nations in the world and is actively campaigning for maintaining and safeguarding maritime expert knowledge. The German sea and inland ports are among the best terminals in the world. As logistics service providers and growth drivers, they are of outstanding importance to the whole economy. Ports are high-tech locations with attractive jobs, and they need highly-qualified workers. About 95 % of intercontinental trade in goods takes place by sea. Therefore, nearly every sector of the economy depends on functioning ports and well-developed infrastructure in their environment. In the container shipping sector, we are at the top of the league table, with an international market share of around 21%. In addition to our sea ports, the maritime shipping industry, the shipbuilding industry and the supply industry are also part of the maritime cluster. Around half a million people are employed in the maritime cluster – on board and on shore.

Inland navigation, shipyards and shipping companies

The transport of goods on German inland waterways is one of the main pillars of our outstanding logistics chain. Shipyards and shipping companies are traditionally found in the coastal regions and along the great inland waterways. Many supply companies in the inland waterway and maritime shipping sectors and in marine engineering, including innovative medium-sized enterprises from the fields of plant engineering, materials, electrical engineering and services, are found in central and southern Germany. Thus, the economic strength of the maritime cluster can be felt in the whole of Germany.

National Ports Strategy

The Strategy dates from 2015 and represents new strategic guidance for the ports policy of the next ten years. German ports are to continue to perform their function as hubs of national and international trade, centres for logistics activities and industrial sites at the highest level possible.

The Ports Strategy includes measures aimed at

  • the targeted upgrading of port-related infrastructure,
  • the improvement of the competitiveness of the sea and inland ports,
  • the international and European ports policy,
  • environmental protection and climate change mitigation,
  • good training and jobs,
  • ensuring appropriate safety and security and
  • better cooperation between the Federal Government and the federal states in ports policy.

On the way to the port 4.0

In the context of sharply rising volumes of cargo being handled, the Innovative Port Technologies Funding Guidelines provide funds for projects to research and develop activities with regard to innovative port technologies as well as cargo handling and the movement of goods out of ports. This is about enhancing logistics chains and progressing the interconnection of production and logistics, improving the digital infrastructure and creating new jobs in these fields. To this end, the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport is making available funding totalling 64 million euros.

Joint Maritime Emergency Reporting and Assessment Centre (GLZ-See). Source: MSZ administration manager/Erik Krüger

Maritime Safety and Security Centre in Cuxhaven – coordinated efforts for more safety and security at sea

Collision of ships in the German Bight: oil emerges from one of the damaged ships and drifts towards the coast. In the loading area of the other ship, a fire has started and needs to be fought as quickly as possible. At the Horn of Africa, a German trading ship is attacked by pirates and a silent alarm is triggered. Packages containing drugs are found on the German coast.

These are possible or even real scenarios in which the Joint Maritime Emergency Reporting and Assessment Centre at the Maritime Safety and Security Centre in Cuxhaven is notified immediately. At this Centre, a picture of the situation is composed from all relevant data of the different authorities, continuously updated and made available to all partners. Of course, all measures that are deemed necessary are taken immediately. The Joint Maritime Emergency Reporting and Assessment Centre is the operational core of the Maritime Safety and Security Centre. The colleagues of the maritime security authorities are dealing with the monitoring of the sea area in German coastal waters, with security and with the improvement of accident management around the clock. In the middle of 2016, the experienced staff moved into a new building where they now have at their disposal highly sophisticated information and communications technology, allowing them to react quickly and flexibly on a case by case basis to ensure the safety and security of maritime shipping.

Competence on the ground

In the Maritime Safety and Security Centre, staff members of the following authorities work together:

  • Federal Police,
  • customs authorities,
  • Federal Agency for Agriculture and Food,
  • Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration,
  • German Navy,
  • River police forces of the coastal states and
  • the Central Command for Maritime Emergencies.

Maintaining an overview of the current security situation at all times

The coordinator at the Maritime Emergency Reporting and Assessment Centre ensures smooth day-to-day operations, as the colleagues at the Maritime Safety and Security Centre also deal with important tasks when there is no emergency: for example, they compose a picture of the situation on the German coast from various data (shipping traffic, meteorology, special events) on a daily basis.

More safety and security for all

The Maritime Safety and Security Centre is a communication and cooperation network of the operative forces of the Federal Government and the coastal states. Partners of the network perform their duties effectively and efficiently. The structure of the network allows for flexible approaches: while the highly specialized competencies of the individual partners are preserved, it is also possible to join forces as required by the corresponding situation. Thus, Germany has become a role model for many coastal states in Europe and the world.

December 2004December 2004 Bundestag’s decision to optimize the coastguard
September 2005September 2005 Administrative agreement to establish a Maritime Safety and Security Centre in Cuxhaven
January 2007January 2007 Joint Maritime Emergency Reporting and Assessment Centre of the Maritime Safety and Security Centre takes up work at the premises of the Cuxhaven Office for Waterways and Shipping
December 2011December 2011 German Navy joins administrative agreement of the Maritime Safety and Security Centre
April 2013April 2013 Federal Maritime Control Centre is set up
June 2016June 2016 Beginning of trial operations in the new building of the Maritime Safety and Security Centre
January 2017January 2017 Beginning of effective operations in the new building of the Maritime Safety and Security Centre
9 February 20179 February 2017 Opening ceremony of the new building
The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure applies a Waterborne Tourism Strategy which is based on nature conservation and leisure activities. Source: Fotolia/famveldman

Upgrading minor waterways to make them attractive to tourists – a waterborne tourism strategy

Going on holiday in their own country is becoming more and more popular among Germans, and guests from abroad also like to choose Germany as a holiday destination. And they do not only focus on tourist hotspots like Berlin or the Bavarian fairy-tale castles. Cycle tourism along the rivers or navigating the canals and lakes of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania or Brandenburg is also becoming increasingly popular. The Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport intends to implement a waterborne tourism strategy together with the federal states and municipalities in question that is based on nature conservation and leisure activities. It has already been drawn up and marks the commitment of the Federal Government to its responsibility also for federal waterways which are almost exclusively used for leisure purposes.

A whole new approach

In the medium term, a separate financial and human resources budget is to be established for these minor waterways. Because when competing with the waterways of the core network, which are needed for the transport of goods, and the infrastructure measures they require, minor waterways have often been neglected in the past. This has to change. In the future, the minor waterways of the Federal Government are to be developed in close cooperation with the federal states and actors on the ground wherever possible. The Federal Government will continue to provide an appropriate financial contribution. However, money is not everything: qualified staff is also needed to advance the implementation of the strategy and operate the facilities. The framework conditions with regard to jobs and funding are to be created step by step within the framework of the transformation of the Waterways and Shipping Administration.

Development strategies for minor waterways

On the minor waterways, future infrastructure standards and operations will be aligned with the types of use that are particularly important for the individual pilotage areas. The diverse interests, such as leisure activities, transport, water resources management and nature conservation, are taken into account early on (see also “Germany's Blue Belt – A Federal Government Programme” below). Therefore, the Waterways and Shipping Administration, together with the federal states and the actors on the ground, will draw up development strategies and describe the future infrastructures and uses as well as the transport, ecological and other objectives for individual state-owned waterways. It is the intention of the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport that the Federal Government and federal state administrations as well as the regional agencies agree on joint guiding principles with regard to the functions that are to be performed in their respective area of responsibility.


Tax revenues of the Federal Government will be a major source of funding for the minor waterways also in the future. However, an adequate share of the funding will also be provided by the recreational shipping sector. At any rate, the Federal Ministry for Digital and Transport is required by law to introduce fees also for professional and recreational shipping.

further information

Germany's Blue Belt. Source: Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure

Germany's Blue Belt

With the Federal Government Programme “Germany's Blue Belt”, the approx. 7,300 kilometres of federal waterways are to be ecologically upgraded, and life and recreation on the river are to become even more enjoyable. Currently, it is primarily the core network of the major rivers and canals that is used for freight transport. Alongside this network, however, there are about 2,800 km of secondary waterways that carry hardly any freight today. In the future, these minor waterways in particular, which today are of practically no significance for freight transport, are to be both ecologically developed and upgraded for leisure and recreational activities. For the waterways that are very intensively used for the carriage of freight, "ecological stepping stones” are to be implemented.
“Germany's Blue Belt”, the joint initiative of the Federal Ministry of Transport and the Federal Ministry of the Environment will make Germany’s waterways fit for the next decades also from an ecological point of view. The Federal Waterways and Shipping Administration is already planning pilot projects on several rivers and intends to transfer the experience gained from these projects to the Federal Government Programme “Germany’s Blue Belt”.

A task for several generations

The idea of the “blue belt” is based on the idea of the “green belt”, i.e. the nationally important system of interlinked biotopes that have been created along the former border between East and West Germany. Aligning the renaturalization of minor waterways with the interests of leisure and recreation (see also “Upgrading minor waterways to make them attractive to tourists – a water tourism strategy”) is a new and demanding task that will involve many people: from the federal administration and environmentalist groups to the federal states and, not least, you, the citizens. Because you can use this “blue belt” to relax and pursue your leisure time activities.

A role model for the whole of Germany

In particular with regard to the minor waterways, joint development strategies in line with the intended future uses are to be developed. Taking the EU-funded Living Lahn (LiLa) project as an example, the Waterways and Shipping Administration is exploring this new challenge:
The River Lahn originates in the Rothaar Mountains in North Rhine-Westphalia and flows via Marburg, Gießen and Limburg past 24 weirs through Hesse. In Rhineland-Palatinate, it passes Bad Ems and finally joins the Rhine to the south of Koblenz. Most of the time, paddle or rowing boots are found on the Lahn, and in some cases also excursion ships. At the beginning of 2016, the Waterways and Shipping Administration, together with the federal states of Hesse and Rhineland-Palatinate, started the “LiLa” project: nature conservation and sustainable tourism are now given priority here. Land and waterway users, nature conservation groups and tourism associations as well as citizens are involved in the concrete implementation of the new strategy.

Blue Belt Timeline
Since 2016Since 2016 Planning and implementation of pilot projects
Up to 2020Up to 2020 Implementation phase in the transitional period and provision of additional staff and budgetary funds in the federal budget
After 2020After 2020 Creating the legal conditions and commissioning of the Waterways and Shipping Administration