Water is a vital resource for life, but it can become a deadly danger.
The catastrophic floods in western Germany highlighted these two opposing aspects at the same time. In some villages and towns in the Eifel region which have been particularly affected, there is a shortage of drinking water as the floods have damaged the supply facilities. In the Euskirchen district, authorities advised residents to boil the generally excellent tap water before drinking it, as it could have been contaminated by burst pipes and heavy rains.
In Germany, the management of water and wastewater is the responsibility of the municipalities. Some of them formed larger associations to improve efficiency. For example, municipalities from the Euskirchen district and other regions up to the German-Dutch border have come together to form the Eifel-Rur Water Association (WVER).
Prepare for two extremes
In principle, Germany has more than enough water to supply private homes and industry. Authorities expect an average available water supply of 188 billion cubic meters (nearly 50 trillion gallons) in the long term, double the amount of water in Lake Geneva. In 2016, according to the Federal Statistical Office, 13.5% of this amount was extracted. Incidentally, most of it was used in industry, agriculture or for cooling power stations, and not as part of the public water supply.
An annual extraction of up to 20% is considered problem-free. But since 2011, the available water supply has remained below the calculated amount – in 2018, Germany had only around 119 billion cubic meters of water as a renewable resource. After three consecutive particularly hot and dry summers, some experts warned in January that German soil was almost completely dry.
Now, at least for the time being, the water authorities are struggling to cope with the opposite extreme. Dams that had long recorded low water levels are now literally bursting at the seams. For days after the first floods, the situation at the Steinbachtal dam in the Euskirchen district remained worrying. Some towns and villages located downstream of the dam were evacuated, because the evacuation of the water which is straining the structure was taking longer than expected. Residents could only return on Monday.
The back wall of the Steinbachtalsperre dam is badly damaged
Responsibility for flood prevention
For at least a decade, a European directive obliges Member States to manage flood risks. In Germany, this management is mainly left to the different federal states, or LÃ¤nder. For example, the Land of Rhineland-Palatinate, which is particularly affected by flooding, is developing risk assessments and plans and implementing protective measures such as dykes on large rivers such as the Rhine and the Moselle. The German Environment Agency (UBA) recently assessed the effectiveness of nationwide measures on major German rivers. And indeed, the water level of the Rhine was hardly a problem during the recent disaster.
Compared to the larger rivers, the floods of the Ahr River were exponentially worse.
The rivers whose floods caused the worst damage – the Ahr and Kyll in Rhineland-Palatinate and the Erft in North Rhine-Westphalia – are smaller streams, however. Here, the municipalities are responsible for flood protection measures.
In Rhineland-Palatinate, the state finances up to 90% of the costs of prevention measures against floods and heavy rains at municipal level. According to Malu Dreyer, Prime Minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, 16 million euros ($ 18.88 million) have been invested in flood prevention in the Ahr Valley. In North Rhine-Westphalia. there is a special fund for these municipal projects, which amounted to 66 million euros in 2018.
The climate crisis is causing major changes
Due to the climate crisis, these two extreme situations – too much or too little water – will occur more frequently in Germany in the future. To prepare the country for these challenges, the Minister of the Environment Svenja Schulze has a national water strategy. It aims to make lakes and rivers cleaner and healthier, reform water management and tackle water shortages. One of his ideas is to have âsmartâ water prices that make water use less expensive during times of low demand. It also proposes the establishment of hierarchies that will determine who will have priority for water use when a particular region faces a scarcity.
The plan foresees investments to the tune of around 1 billion euros until 2030, but has yet to be approved for implementation by the next government. For this reason, the opposition Greens described the strategy as “useless if it is not finally implemented”.
The word “sponge town” is also used in the plan. In other words, he wants the cities of the future to have enough green spaces where water can easily infiltrate and flow into groundwater. This would mean that water from heavy rainfall would not end up flowing directly into the sea via the rivers.
This winter, the Wuppertalsperre in North Rhine-Westphalia was barely full, as seen here. Now it looks completely different.
In light of the current flood disaster, the German umbrella association for energy and water management, BDEW, has also warned that fewer areas in city centers need to be cemented and resources in remaining drinking water had to be protected from contamination. BDEW CEO Martin Weyand told media group Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland that “we must not recklessly endanger our drinking water resources”.
This article was translated from German.