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German water utilities sound warning

December 25, 2018

Water outages could cripple Germany if pipeline and treatment investments are not made, community supply companies have warned. They say Europe's summer drought tested deliveries on a scale "long unknown."

Jetstream Rossby-Wellen
NASA graphic: Was jetstream stalling behind Europe's summer drought?Image: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Karsten Specht, vice-president of Germany's VKU local utilities association, said Tuesday that costly investments were needed to develop instrastructure for water supplies and treatment.

The VKU's 1,460 members — largely consortia owned by local authorities — were already investing €6 billion ($7 billion) annually, Specht said.

He added that while people took it for granted that taps brought water, they forgot that elaborate infrastructures were needed to get it there — and also for subsequent waste-water disposal. Politicians, must recognize this "long-term task."

Water for rural, depopulated areas

Infrastructure also had to be maintained, and minimum waste water volumes sustained, in rural areas, even if the populations were shrinking, Specht said. "In many [remote] places that won't be possible without subsidies."

Funding from Germany's federal and regional governments was so far insufficient to mitigate surges in extreme events such as droughts and flash floods.

Soils should remain unsealed so aquifers were replenished, Specht said.

Summer drought severe

The VKU spokesman said last summer's drought resulted in record, but mostly trouble-free, fresh water deliveries, sometimes double the volume, but in some places "systems hit their limits."

Utility companies rationed water for gardens and swimming pools. "These were circumstances that we haven't known for a long time period," said Specht.

Then, late in November, when the Rhine was at record lows, stranding river ships, the Koblenz-based Federal Institute for Hydrology (BfG) said "extensive rainfall over a period of several months" would be necessary to refill aquifers. Rainfalls boosted levels somewhat and river traffic was restored.

BfG expert Jörg Uwe Belz told Bonn's General Anzeiger newspaper in early December that to restore the Rhine to its pre-drought state, its catchment would need double its average rainfall by June next year, to about 1.15 liters per square meter (6.5 cubic inches per square foot).

Otherwise, the 2018 summer drought could impact Europe for a long time, he said.

Jetstreams stalled?

Last month, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) said high altitude eastward moving jet streams that typically convey high- and low-pressure weather systems across Europe and North America had stalled.

Mankind appeared to be "messing with giant airstreams in the stratosphere," according to the institute.

ipj/jm (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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