Functions


About 58 million people live in the catchment area. People use the river for all kinds of things. The Rhine is the most heavily used of all European rivers. It is used for many different things; we express this by saying that the Rhine has many ‘functions’.

 

Sometimes these functions are in conflict. For example, if many large cargo ships use the river, it’s not a good idea to go swimming. When people use the river, this almost always affects water quality.

Read more about the consequences of functions on water quality.

Shipping


We use rivers to travel. The Rhine is the most important waterway in Europe. An enormous amount of cargo is transported on the Rhine.

A long time ago, water transport was the most important means of transport. This is why most cities are located on rivers and seas. Nowadays we also use lorries, trains and planes of course, but river shipping (inland navigation) is still very important.

Container ship (Photo: D. Putscher)
Container ship (Photo: D. Putscher)

Industry

The Rhineland is a useful site for factories, because businesses can use it to collect raw materials and send out finished products.

It started with the textile industry (clothes and fabric), quickly followed by dyeing companies which supplied dyes to the textile factories. Now there are all kinds of chemical companies along the Rhine, making not just dyes and paint but all kinds of chemicals such as medicines and plastics. The Rhineland is also a very popular location for carmakers, steel and metal companies and the paper industry.

The river is not just useful for transport. Factories also take water from the Rhine to cool their machines. Waste water is discharged into the river, subject to strict rules of course!

Petrochemical port, Cologne-Godorf (DE) Foto: D. Putscher
Petrochemical port, Cologne-Godorf (DE) Foto: D. Putscher

Agriculture


About half the catchment area of the Rhine is used for agriculture. All kinds of things are grown: from maize to grapes and from vegetables to sugar beet. And of course there are livestock farms too, raising cattle, sheep and pigs.

The fields, pastures and vineyards need water, and discharge water. Used water travels through groundwater and ditches to end up back in the Rhine.

Waste water


Industry and agriculture discharge waste water into the Rhine, and waste water is also generated by people living in the area. The waste water is filtered and purified so that it is reasonably clean when it enters the Rhine. It is never perfectly clean. This means that the waste water, and even the rainwater that carries substances from the soil into the Rhine, can be harmful to the Rhine.

Wastewater treatment plant
Wastewater treatment plant

Leisure


There are about 900 swimming sites along the Rhine. It is very widely used for leisure, or things you do in your free time.

People go to the Rhine to enjoy nature, look at boats or take exercise.

You can hike, cycle or skate along the Rhine. Lots of paths have been set up for these activities. Other people go to the Rhine or a tributary to dive, sail, row or fish.

Leisure along the Rhine  (Photo: D. Putscher)
Leisure along the Rhine (Photo: D. Putscher)

Energy


Rivers flow, and so does the Rhine. You can use the current to generate energy. Turbines convert the power of the water to energy, which we call hydraulic power.

A turbine is a rod with blades that moves when water flows along it.

If you use the current, this is less harmful to the environment. But many hydraulic power plants work in a different way. Reservoirs are created to retain water and send it past the turbines. This is harmful to the environment, for example because fish cannot get past them. This is why countries in the catchment area are making agreements to minimise environmental damage. For example, fish corridors are built through which fish can swim to pass the weir.

Weir Iffezheim (DE)/FR) with fish passage
Weir Iffezheim (DE)/FR) with fish passage

Drinking water

We cannot live without water. Drinking water is very important to people. About 20 million people living in the Rhineland drink purified Rhine water.

Drinking water (Photo: BMUB)
Drinking water (Photo: BMUB)

Nature

There is a lot of nature in and around the Rhine. Plants and animals depend on the Rhine to live. Nature can be put at risk by the fact that people use the Rhine for all kinds of things. This is why we believe it is very important to protect and help nature. For example, bird reserves and areas where fish and shellfish are given extra protection have been set up.

Nature (Water gentian) Photo: D. Putscher
Nature (Water gentian) Photo: D. Putscher
Nature (Grass snake) Photo: U. Haufe
Nature (Grass snake) Photo: U. Haufe


We do this for nature, but also a bit for ourselves. A clean, natural Rhine is good for our drinking water and good for fish and shellfish that we catch and eat.

Read more about this in the Nature topic.