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Water scarcity triggers fierce competition — also in Germany

Matthias von Hein
August 27, 2022

Climate change threatens to dry up the planet and the global water crisis sees the competition for water becoming ever more fierce. Conflicts over the scarce commodity are increasing everywhere. Even in Germany.

Burning forest near the city of Aschaffenburg
Climate change, heat, drought: Germany is running out of water and its forests are sufferingImage: Ralf Hettler/dpa/picture alliance

Water is a scarce commodity and has been for a long time. And often it is a contested one. A 4,500-year-old stone from Mesopotamia, in today's Iraq, is on display in the Louvre museum in Paris. Engraved on it are scenes of battle and war the kings of Lagash and Umma fought, in part over water.

Since then, the value of water has multiplied. Eight billion people now live on earth and they all need drinking water. But above all, agriculture and industry, consume gigantic quantities of water. At the same time, climate change is upsetting the rhythm of rain and drought.

When Ethiopia builds a dam on the upper reaches of the Nile, Sudan and Egypt fear for their lifelines. The Ilisu Dam in Turkey, dams the waters of the Tigris River — which means that less water arrives in Iraq. The Euphrates River is dammed in several locations. In 2018, a study conducted on orders of the EU Commission identified eight rivers where the risk of conflict over the use of increasingly scarce water is particularly high: The Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris, as well as the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, and Colorado Rivers.

Map showing drough areas in Germany

Drought in Germany

Germany does not appear in the EU commission's report. It has always been considered a water-rich country — until now. Climate change is making summers hotter — and drier — even between the Alps and the North Sea. As a result, landscapes are withering, wetlands are drying out, and forests are burning. Rivers fail as traffic arteries because they do not carry enough water for shipping. And as groundwater levels drop, there is mounting concern over the future.

Take the 500-strong village of Leisel, located on the edge of the Hunsrück in western Germany. There, people are angry about two mineral water companies that want to drill new wells in the middle of the nature park in order to increase their production.

The residents fear that their own wells will run dry. "Is the expansion of a water withdrawal in the national park even permissible?" asks water expert Holger Schindler. In this case, at least the test drillings seem to be legal. They were applied for and approved shortly before the national park was established in 2015.

Overall, Schindler has observed that groundwater recharge is declining. As a result, the biologist expects regional water conflicts to come to a head in Germany as well.

Sheep grazing in the Lüneburg Heath
The Lüneburg Heath area sees its water channeled to the city of HamburgImage: Thomas Kottal/dpa/picture alliance

Decades-old competition for water

Conflicts over water are increasingly occupying German courts. For example, in the city of Lüneburg in northern Germany, the court is hearing a case that centers around water for nearby Hamburg, Germany's second-largest city. The regional water supplier, Hamburg Wasser, has been providing water to the city for 40 years, drawing it from the Lüneburg Heath area. Now, it wants to expand the volume significantly. Lüneburg district capped the withdrawal in 2019 over ecological concerns. Hamburg Wasser has filed a lawsuit against this.

Cities and their surrounding areas often don't see eye to eye. The competition between the needs of urban centers and the protection of nature is particularly evident in the Hessian Ried, a region south of Frankfurt. For decades, water has been pumped from there to the city. As a result, the level of groundwater has sunk. With serious consequences for the forest. "The forests in the Rhine-Main area are among the hotspots in Central Europe," according to a study by the University of Göttingen back in 2013. And water demand is one of the causes.

"We're talking about decades-old competition for water between the city of Frankfurt and the surrounding area," explains Dieter Borchardt. The head of the "Water Resources and Environment" research area at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research has diagnosed an overuse of water reserves. So much so that sometimes the ground gives way: "There has been damage to buildings there and major disputes about what the reason for this is," Borchardt told DW.

Elon Musk opening the car factory in Grünheide in March 2022
Elon Musk set up a Tesla factory in the middle of a region that already suffers from water shortageImage: Patrick Pleul/Pool/REUTERS

Thirsty industry

Industrial production, meanwhile, is especially high in water consumption. The carmaker Tesla's plant in Grünheide, Brandenburg, made headlines also because it was built in the middle of a region that already suffers from water shortages; the new factory is also located in a drinking water protection area. And it needs masses of water: an estimated 1.4 million cubic meters a year. And that is after it has already cut back from its original plans to use more than 3 million cubic meters.

In the meantime, water is so scarce in the region that the local water supplier has begun rationing: The average consumption there is 175 liters. But anyone who moves to the region and gets a new water connection is only allowed to use 105 liters per capita per day.

Energy companies consume a particularly large amount of water. Power plants evaporate water in their cooling towers. And lignite mining pumps out a lot of water. One of the biggest water consumers is energy giant RWE. It uses almost 500 million cubic meters a year in its opencast lignite mines. And it hardly has to pay anything for it. The authorities often grant water rights for long periods of time, sometimes decades. And these contracts often date from times when climate change was not yet noticeable.

The Garzweiler lignite mine in Lützerath
Lignite mining needs a lot of waterImage: Oliver Pieper/DW

Water rights and a lack of knowledge

In principle, it is good that there are water rights in Germany and that they are granted by public authorities, says Dieter Borchardt. "Water is an inherited good that must be managed accordingly. Anyone who wants to use water in Germany must apply for it and must be granted a permit to do so." The regulatory authorities have to check how much water there is in the respective region and how much water is to be used. And they must ensure that this is done sustainably.

However, the basis for decision-making is often lacking. Martina Raschke, a water expert at the environmental protection organization BUND, tells DW about a survey she herself conducted among 13 districts and independent cities in Germany's most populous state of North-Rhine Westphalia. The result was that the responsible authorities often do not know how much groundwater there really is for them to distribute.

Germany and the drought

In view of the increasing shortage, the federal German Environment Ministry is working on a National Water Strategy. A draft presented in 2021 mentioned water supply concepts to be implemented between 2030 and 2050. Water management is an ongoing task, says water expert Borchardt. And he points out that the full impact of climate change may not become apparent until after 2050. "We have to prepare for that now," says the Helmholtz researcher.

Otherwise, water conflicts could perhaps escalate further. Just as they did 4,500 years ago. A look at the Pacific Institute's Water Conflict Chronology shows the role water currently plays in wars. The most recent entry relates to the Ukraine war: In February, Russian troops destroyed a dam near Kherson that had blocked water to the Crimean peninsula.

This article was originally written in German.

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