IFAT Industry Insights

Clean water—a precious resource

The water supply in Germany is considered to be safe and of high quality, although contamination by nitrates and other residues create challenges for water treatment. However, from a global perspective, the situation remains extremely tense regionally. But there are also examples that prove the opposite—where water scarcity is successfully combated.

contamination of water and bacteria under magnifying glas
© iStock / lexamer

A few weeks ago, the Venetians had to bitterly experience what too much water means. And in the dry summer of 2018, we were able to experience how quickly water scarcity can lead to restrictions, even in our latitudes. Germany is in a comparatively comfortable situation, as it is a country rich in water, and its water supply occupies a top position worldwide. Drinking water is one of the best controlled foods in Germany. Nevertheless, DWA President Prof. Dr. Uli Paetzel warns: "The concerns of the water industry must be given much greater public consideration." The statement of the President of the German Association for Water Management, Wastewater and Waste (DWA) is not without reason—it aims at the pollution by nitrate, drug residues and pesticides as well as progressive global warming. "It is crucial that politicians take a clear stand on the social value of drinking water as a location factor for the economy, but also as a guarantor of quality of life," emphasizes Dr. Dirk Waider, Vice President of the German Technical and Scientific Association for Gas and Water (DVGW).

Harmonizing conflicting interests

As regards nitrate pollution of groundwater and soil, all water boards agree: it's too high. According to leading experts, the main cause for this is intensive agriculture with factory farming and excessive fertilizing. Germany is therefore being put to the test by the EU. The EU Commission is currently examining proposals to tighten up the fertilizer ordinance that the Federal Ministry for the Environment and the Federal Ministry of Agriculture sent to Brussels at the end of September 2019. "However, it has not yet been possible to reconcile the economic interests of farmers with the outstanding importance of drinking water for health protection and quality of life," criticizes DVGW Vice President Jörg Höhler.

The drinking water ordinance allows a nitrate concentration of up to 50 milligrams per liter, which is classified as harmless to health. According to the Nitrate Report of the Federal Government, however, around 50 percent of the groundwater monitoring wells between 2012 and 2014 had elevated nitrate concentrations—28 percent even exceeded the permissible limit.

Less nitrate thanks to cooperation and technology

How do the water suppliers react to this situation? Stadtwerke Osnabrück, for example, adopted a two-pronged approach, on the one hand comprising long-term cooperation models with agriculture: the municipal utilities acquire arable land around the waterworks and lease it to farmers who are obliged to grassland and organic farming. On the other hand, the municipal utilities rely on technical solutions such as nanofiltration, which can filter nitrate out of the water. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the situation will improve throughout the nation in the foreseeable future, even though much is being done by the water suppliers.

In 2017, German drinking water suppliers invested around €2.7 billion in the maintenance of their facilities and in the expansion and renewal of their infrastructure. A large share (63 percent) the utility companies of the water industry raised for plants and pipe networks. Around 21 percent of the investment sum was spent on water extraction, treatment and storage. The remaining 16 percent were distributed among meters, measuring equipment, IT and other acquisitions.

Strengthen the polluter pays principle

Also with regard to other water pollution, there is still a need for action.

Pharmaceutical residues and other trace substances are increasingly polluting our waters. And although using new technologies, sewage treatment plants cannot filter out all substances. So, we need to start at the source of the pollution and strengthen the polluter pays principle.

Jörg Simon Vice President of the German Association of the Energy and Water Industries (BDEW)

VKU also shares this view. A position paper of the Association of Local Utilities (VKU) states: "Less is more for everyone: drugs must be reduced at the source." But what are the possible consequences for our health? At least in this respect, DVGW gives the all-clear: "Pharmaceutical products, household chemicals or fertilizers continuously release residues into the environment and thus into water bodies. According to present knowledge, the concentration of the detected substances is harmless to humans."

WHO: global situation still serious

As urgent as the problems in Germany may be—compared to the global situation they seem to be manageable and solvable. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 785 million people have no access to clean drinking water and around two billion people use drinking water sources contaminated with feces. Half the world's population will be living in areas with water shortages in 2025.

Water-scarce Malta—sealed infrastructure

Malta is one of the top ten water-scarce countries in the world. But the management of leaks in pipelines alone reduced municipal water consumption by 40 percent compared to 1992. As in Israel, drinking water in Malta is produced by seawater desalination. Manuel Sapiano, Senior Official in the Maltese Energy and Water Authority explains: “Unfortunately, ‘producing’ fresh water is a must for us.” The high energy demand for producing fresh water from seawater has fortunately been more than halved in the last ten years, adds Sapiano. Thanks to this and other measures such as water recycling in agriculture, where industrial water is used for irrigation, the drinking water supply in the densely populated country can be ensured with a per capita consumption of 110 liters per day. For comparison: in Germany, the long-term average is 121 liters per day, apart from the dry year of 2018, when it jumped to 127.

Concepts for metropolises around the globe

In 2050, for the first time in history, over 50 percent of humanity—around 6.4 billion people—will be living in urban areas. This forecast prompted the International Water Association (IWA) in 2016 to launch the globally oriented concept of "Water Wise Cities”: in terms of leadership culture, governance rules, professional qualification and technology, the participating cities align their behavior with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Over a dozen cities around the globe are now member of this initiative, including major cities such as Berlin, Melbourne, Tokyo and Paris.

In Dakar, another member, several initiatives have been successfully working since the end of 2013 to improve the water situation in the Senegalese capital—these include rainwater and climate adaptation projects as well as two newly founded organizations that are specifically concerned with providing the city with safe drinking water and disposing of sewage and sewage sludge in an orderly manner.

Since 2018, there also has been an Indo-German cooperation as part of the Indian "100 Smart Cities” program. Currently, Indian cities lack around 19 million housing units, and only a third of urban households are connected to a central sewage system. On behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, three cities are currently supported: Bhubaneswar, Kochi and Coimbatore. In concrete terms, the program, which runs until 2021, aims to help create adequate housing space in the three towns, provide people with drinking water and sanitary facilities and improve sewage treatment and waste disposal. The operational management of the project is in the hands of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH.

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