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Turning the tide on water use: from freshwater scarcity to fresh perspectives

Guest contribution by Dr. Juliane Thimet, deputy managing director of the Bavarian Municipal Association and member of the IKEM advisory board


Climate change is the driving force for a ‘water transition’, which poses an enormous challenge for humanity. The following 7 principles should guide the activities and efforts that Germany will undertake in the course of this transition. Ultimately, the National Water Dialogue must be rapidly translated into precise solutions.

Principle 1: Keep structures decentralised!

Section 50 (1) of the Federal Water Act (WHG) establishes the water supply as a ‘service of general interest’ (SGI). Decentralised structures can increase resilience and build local acceptance. To this end, local water supply systems should continue to take precedence over water supply systems that function supra-locally.

Principle 2: Water is ‘blue gold’ – protect it by all means!

In the long term, it will not be possible to maintain local water supplies if groundwater is considered worthy of protection only above nitrate levels of 50 mg/L – and if there is no compliance with limits below this point. The state is responsible for protecting groundwater and must implement policies accordingly. The Drinking Water Ordinance (TrinkwV), the Fertiliser Ordinance (DüMV), and the designation of water protection areas are just a few of the levers available.

Principle 3: No measures will work without the EU!

The EU Commission initiated legal proceedings against Germany for violations of the EU Nitrates Directive. On 21 June 2018, the European Court of Justice ruled against the Federal Republic of Germany. This kind of legal action is both helpful and necessary. The EU may be criticised for producing too many rules, but for a water transition to be successful, standards must be uniform across Europe, not just at a regional or national level.

Principle 4: Create a regulatory framework for competing water uses!

In peak load situations, increased water demand coincides with high temperatures and groundwater levels that are 25–30% lower than normal. To prevent such situations, water allocation hierarchies and priority rankings for the water supply are being developed at the federal level. To this end, the responsible authorities should be provided with the necessary authority to suspend or reduce water supplies.

Principle 5: Ensure that rainwater is collected, absorbed and stored on-site!

It’s crucial to reach an agreement with the main stakeholder – the agricultural sector – on potential improvements to soil structures that will allow the soil to absorb water (which does not happen in compacted maize fields). Measures must be taken to reduce runoff on sites with sloped ground. Where appropriate, water should be captured and stored so that it is available for new forms of irrigation. Soil drainage – i.e. the diversion of groundwater, spring water and perched water away from fields ­–­ should also be largely reduced.

Principle 6: Simplify funding methods!

Global changes and their effects cannot solely be funded with local fees for water supply or wastewater disposal. As a result, there is also a need for a radical simplification of the funding framework for municipal measures. One implementation incentive would be to offer each municipality a fixed ‘pot’ of federal and state funds based on the number of inhabitants and the area. This would provide an incentive to implement solutions that are appropriate for local conditions and would make the topic an ongoing focus of all committees.

In light of the increasing incidence of heavy rainfall, there is also a need for uniform federal regulations on the development and renaturation of watercourses.

Principle 7: Keep public acceptance high!

The public bears the costs of the water transition. The most important point for the public to understand is that failing to take action would vastly increase the costs of the water transition.

The good news is that people have never been more willing to shoulder precisely these costs of change, to adjust their behaviour, and to follow clear guidelines. The time is ripe for the water transition!


IKEM – Institute for Climate Protection, Energy and Mobility e.V.