The Rhine River



At 1320 kilometers the Rhine is the longest river in Europe. It rises in the Swiss Alps issuing from the Rheinwaldhorn Glacier 3,353 m above sea level. It flows generally north, passing through or bordering on Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands before emptying into the North Sea at Rotterdam. Its important tributaries are the Aare, Neckar, Main, Moselle, and Ruhr rivers.

Canals link the river with the Maas, Rhône-Saône, Marne, and Danube (via the Main) valleys. The Rhine is connected to the Mediterranean Sea by the Rhine-Rhone canal and is joined to the Black Sea by the Rhine-Danube canals. This makes it possible for barges and passenger boats to travel from the North Sea to the Black Sea. The Rhine is the busiest waterway in the world and cargo is transported all over Europe using these two canals. Coal, coke, grain, timber, and iron ore are the principal cargoes carried on the river. Rotterdam is the chief outlet to the North Sea and is the worlds largest sea port. Duisburg, the outlet for the Ruhr industrial region, is the worlds largest river port.

The current population of the basin is approximately 50 million. The major cities are all situated on the Rhine or on its larger tributaries and the development of these cities is strongly dependent on water. Similarly, activities undertaken within these cities impact on the waters of the Rhine and its tributaries. In this sense, the Rhine basin could be regarded as a kind of "mega-city". The problems and issues that have faced the development of the Rhine basin are similar to those currently facing water resources managers in large cities. Specific issues include water supply, flooding, water quality, energy production, transport and institutional arrangements. The demands on water for a range of purposes has increased significantly with time. Population growth, industry, agriculture, hydropower generation and other users can be either cooperative or competing users.

Quick Facts

Rhine River Quick Facts



Annual flow at mouth

69.3 cubic km - or 69 300 billion litres

Basin Population

50 million

Population Density of Basin

270 persons per square km

Bordering Countries

France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands & Luxembourg

Countries flowed through

Switzerland, Germany & Netherlands

Population of countries flowed through

106 million

Average per capita GDP of countries flowed through

US$ 23 877


Transport, domestic supply, industrial, agricultural, tourism, power generation & recreation.

Legal Agreements

Convention on the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine against Pollution (Bern convention) signed in 1963 by states bordering the river. It was resigned in 1999 with the European Union included. View Agreement

Rhine Action Plan Against Chemical Pollution (RAP), 1987.

Action Plan on flood Defense, 1998.

Institutional Arrangements

ICPR (International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine)

European Environment Agency (EEA)

Institutional Arrangements

The principle institution involved with the management of the Rhine River is the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine (ICPR). It was founded in Basel on July 11, 1950 by countries bordering the Rhine - Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Germany and the Netherlands. It was created as a common forum, where questions relating to the pollution and management of the Rhine could be discussed and solutions sought for. The driving force behind the setting up of the commission was the Netherlands. As the final downstream riparian they were having to contend with high levels of pollution and floods on a regular basis.

Targets of the ICPR

  • Sustainable development of the entire Rhine ecosystem.

  • Guarantee the use of Rhine water for drinking water production.

  • Improvement of the sediment quality in order to enable the use or disposal of dredged material without causing environmental harm.

  • Overall flood prevention and environmentally sound flood protection.

  • Improvement of the North Sea quality in accordance with other measures aimed at the protection of this marine area.

Working method of the Commission

  • Rhine Ministers (of member states) decide the precise tasks for the Commission and the member states.

  • Implementation of the decisions taken by the Commission is the responsibility of the Member States; decisions taken by the Commission are not legally binding.

  • Preparation and elaboration of Commission's decisions in 3 permanent working groups and 2 project groups (see box alongside).

  • Specific tasks are dealt with by expert groups.

  • Composition of the groups is made up by national senior officials and experts.

  • A small secretariat supports the work of the Commission.

  • Each Contracting Party bears the costs of its representation in the Commission, as well as costs for studies carried out in its territory.

  • The commission carries out most of its work through the Coordination Group, which is responsible for drafting guidelines for the Working Groups.

European Environment Agency

The mission of the EEA is "to support sustainable development and to help achieve significant and measurable improvement in Europe's environment through the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information to policy making agents and the public".

Although not specifically focussed on water or the Rhine River it is an important agency in the monitoring of the water quality of the Rhine. It is also responsible for the implementation of EU regulations regarding the river.