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Roadmap for the water turnaround

Prof. Dr. Dietrich Borchardt is head of the Department Aquatic Ecosystems Analysis and Management at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ. Image: Sebastian Wiedling/UFZ

Prof. Dr. Dietrich Borchardt is head of the Department Aquatic Ecosystems Analysis and Management at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ. Image: Sebastian Wiedling/UFZ

Why we need the national water strategy: Hydrobiologist Dietrich Borchardt on heavy rains and crop failures, the ecological health of our rivers, and Germany's path to a sustainable water supply.

Even though the perceived comparatively cool and wet summer might suggest otherwise, Germany's water supply is in danger of becoming unbalanced. This is evident not only from the repeated droughts of recent years, but also from the steady drop in groundwater levels in many regions and the drying up of bodies of water, with many districts required to ration water during hot spells. Private households were supplied by the utilities as usual, but individual industries had to curb their consumption.

Who gets preferential use of water? Fortunately, only a few regions or municipalities are faced with this difficult decision, because by international standards, Germany is well supplied. But this has made us careless: We use more water than natural water cycles can provide to all places at all times under the conditions of climate change.

Agriculture alone will need significantly more water in the future because climate change is leading to longer dry periods. Studies show that under certain scenarios, up to 30 percent of all fields in Germany could be artificially irrigated in 2050.Today the figure is just over two percent. Although there will be no less precipitation overall, it will be distributed differently: Even in winter and spring, it will now sometimes remain dry for weeks, but then heavy rain will put whole swaths of land under water.

Our landscapes can no longer adequately absorb these amounts of water. Sealed surfaces, drainage systems and straightened rivers ensure that precipitation runs off quickly instead of gradually seeping into the ground over weeks, months and years, where it eventually forms groundwater.

That is why the National Water Strategy now adopted by the German cabinet is so important. It not only defines the principles according to which water should be distributed when shortages and competitive situations threaten. It also shows how we can prepare our supply for future crises and restore order to the water cycle. I am pleased that many suggestions from research have been taken into account. Our cities, for example, should function like sponges in the future with roof gardens, parks and underground water reservoirs that absorb rain and release it again in times of drought. We also need to renaturate our rivers and lakes so that sudden water masses are better distributed there. In this way, we not only keep precipitation in the ground longer, but also increase the biodiversity of our water bodies as a large proportion of them are in poor ecological condition.

We have known all this for years. But for too long, the challenges were not taken seriously, and many necessary measures were implemented only hesitantly and locally. Now, for the first time, the National Water Strategy presents an overall concept that takes into account input from science, citizens and NGOs, authorities, industry, states and municipalities, and suppliers and disposers. Regions face very different challenges, depending on their water resources and the uses to which they are put. In many places, there is still a lack of regionalized data on water resources, water demand and water supply. We must compile this data and make it available for fact-based decisions.

Once this is done the states and municipalities are called upon: The water strategy provides for an action program with 78 measures to be implemented step by step by 2030, such as the rewetting of wetlands and peatlands including the renaturation of flowing waters, the realization of water-compatible and climate-adapted land use in urban and rural areas, the further reduction of risks from inputs of nutrients and micro-pollutants, or the linking of water, energy and material cycles.

There are huge tasks ahead of us. We must now tackle them together as a society, and the National Water Strategy provides important guidelines for this.

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