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Amid heat waves, Germany adds fountains

Helen Whittle
August 13, 2022

As German cities heat up, the federal government has announced plans to increase the number of public drinking fountains to help ease the impact of the changing climate. The plan also has other environmental benefits.

A boy in a green shirt drinking from a water fountain
Ahead of the curve: Berlin already has over 200 drinking fountains in public spacesImage: Petra Schneider/IMAGO

At the drinking fountain outside Berlin's busy Gesundbrunnen shopping arcade in the Mitte district, passersby stop to refill empty plastic bottles, splash their faces and soak handkerchiefs in the blistering afternoon heat.

On his way into the sweltering hot subway station Uwe, a 55-year-old Berliner with a vermillion-flushed face, leans in for a sip of water. "It can only be a good thing to have more drinking fountains –– this heat is unbearable and it's only going to get hotter," he said.

On August 10, the German cabinet approved a draft bill to install more water fountains in German cities and municipalities. If the law passes the Bundestag, local authorities will be obliged to provide access to free drinking water in public spaces as part of the so-called "Daseinsvorsorge" (guaranteed basic public services framework).

Boys drinking from water fountain as shoppers walk by
Passersby can find refreshment at the public drinking fountain outside Berlin's Gesundbrunnen shopping arcadeImage: Helen Whittle/DW

"If municipalities take action now, they will be making an important contribution to the health, and above all, heat protection of citizens," said Environment Minister Steffi Lemke. "The recent dry and hot summers have shown us: persistent heat waves are no longer a rare event in Germany."

The draft law states that water fountains must be installed where it is technically feasible and appropriate, something Julian Fischer of the nongovernmental environmental group A Tip: Tap, certainly welcomes.

"We have excellent quality tap water in Germany and it's a pity that people buy so much bottled water and then throw the bottles away, so there's a lot of waste," he told DW.

Deutsche Umwelthilfe estimates that around 2 million single-use plastic bottles are used in Germany every hour –– that's more than 47 million per day or 17.4 billion a year.

A Tip: Tap campaigns for more access to tap water to help reduce the use of plastic bottles. This includes the Refill Initiative, where members of the public can have free access to tap water in participating shops, cafes and pharmacies.

Plastic water bottles in a fridge
People in Germany buy millions of plastic water bottles every dayImage: Katja Raiher/DW

There are currently an estimated 1,300 water fountains across Germany, according to the Federal Environment Ministry. The government's plan is to install 1,000 new fountains –– though there are no specific mandates on their exact number or location.

"It would be great for everybody to have better access to clean tap water, but particularly for people with less money or, for example, for situations like families going to a playground needing to refill their water bottles. It should be part of civic infrastructure to have water fountains always nearby," said Fischer.

"Berlin is actually a good example in Germany because we have a relatively large number of fountains across the city."

Berlin is ahead of the curve

In 2018, Berlin's then coalition government of the center-left SPD, the Greens and the socialist Left Party, became a member of the international association Blue Community. Originally founded in Canada, the now global movement seeks to stop the privatization of water and promote access to water as a fundamental human right.

There are currently 201 public drinking fountains in Berlin, with two new fountains set to open in the coming days –– one in Mauerpark, a heavily-frequented public park, and a second at Schlachtensee, a popular bathing spot in the city's southwest.

Keeping hydrated when it's hot

"In Berlin, we're ahead of the curve," said Stephan Natz, spokesperson for the Berliner Wasserbetriebe, Germany's largest water authority, which supplies drinking water to 3.8 million people in the capital.

The authority is responsible for the installation and maintenance of Berlin's drinking fountains, which are in operation from April through to October, including monthly laboratory testing to monitor the quality of the water.

"The design of the fountains –– which is essentially contactless –– ensures they are hygienic. There is no contact between the water and the faucet which also constantly spouts water, meaning the stream of water remains cool to help prevent bacteria from spreading," said Natz.

"There are dog owners who lift up their dogs so they can drink from the fountains, yesterday the local news filmed a crow drinking from the fountain. I've even seen entire swarms of bees drinking from them!"

Apart from quenching the thirst of the birds and the bees, the water authority is also looking at ways to divert the unused water from the fountains, which flows into the drains and gutters, to irrigate nearby parks and other green spaces.

A blue fountain in a park
This drinking fountain in Lichtenberg, Berlin is know as a Kaiser Fountain, named after the architect who designed themImage: Helen Whittle/DW

Hotter summers in the city

"There should be more awareness of the value of water, we have very little rain in Berlin and increasingly so," said Jochen Rabe, the managing director of the nonprofit Kompetenzzentrum Wasser Berlin, which promotes science, research and development in the field of urban water management.

While the key point of public water fountains is to help avoid the use of plastic bottles, it's also a public health issue in Germany, with its increasingly hot urban centers and aging population.

"Are there enough water fountains? No. In urban planning you talk about the 15-minute city –– when it's really, really hot in a heat wave you should have a fountain or at least access to free water within 10 minutes max, particularly with the elderly and vulnerable, who can become dehydrated quite quickly," he said.

Aside from installing more fountains, Rabe said more still needs to be done to provide easily accessible information to the public on where to find the nearest drinking fountain or free access to water through initiatives like Refill Berlin –– a project A Tip: Tap is already working on.

"We just started a campaign to put all public drinking fountains in Germany onto OpenStreetMap," said Julian Fischer.

Spain, Tarragona, Young couple, man drinking from drinking fountain
Germany is seeking to learn from southern European countries like Spain, where drinking fountains are a common sightImage: Westend61/IMAGO

In a country famously behind the curve on digitalization, there is currently no app to help users locate the nearest fountain, though in Berlin the water authority has a map on its website.

Another problem, said Fischer, is the lack of accessibility of fountains for wheelchair users.

Most of the drinking fountains in Berlin are blue cast-iron fountains, the so-called "Kaiser Fountains," named after the architect who designed them in 1985, Siegfried Kaiser, and the minimalistic aluminum "Botsch Fountains," designed by Marcus Botsch.

Of the 201 fountains in Berlin, only the newer concrete "Bituma Fountains" are accessible for wheelchair users, of which 26 are operational with an additional 50 on order.

"Access to drinking water must be as easy as possible for everyone in Germany," said Environment Minister Lemke when she announced that the new draft law had been passed by the cabinet.

Fischer believes that means there should be access to at least one public water fountain for every 1,000 inhabitants, or around 83,000 fountains installed across the country.

"It's not so easy to transform a whole society from drinking bottled water to drinking tap water. We're in the middle of this process, and it's difficult if there's no law in place," he said. "It's obviously a move in the right direction, but the implementation will take a long time."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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