Water securityGermany's Water Management Caught between Flood and Drought

By David Ehl

Published 20 July 2021

For a long while now, there has been talk of a drought in Germany; now, many regions have been deluged with water. How do authorities prepare for these two extremes?

Water is a vital resource for life, but it can become a deadly danger.

The flood disaster in western Germany has highlighted both these opposing aspects at the same time. In some villages and towns in the Eifel region that were particularly badly affected, there is a shortage of drinking water because the flood damaged supply facilities. In the district of Euskirchen, authorities advised residents to boil the usually excellent tap water before drinking it, because it could have been contaminated by burst pipes and heavy rainfall.

In Germany, water and wastewater management are the responsibility of municipalities. Some of them have formed larger associations to improve efficiency.  For example, municipalities in the Euskirchen district and other areas right up to the German-Dutch border have joined to form the Eifel-Rur Water Association (WVER).

Preparing for Two Extremes
In principle, Germany has more than enough water to supply private homes and industry. Authorities reckon with an average available water supply of 188 billion cubic meters (almost 50 trillion gallons) in the long term — twice the amount of water in Lake Geneva. In 2016, according to the Federal Statistics Office, 13.5 % of this amount was extracted. Incidentally, most of this was used in industry, agriculture or to cool power plants, and not as part of the public water supply.

An annual extraction of up to 20%  is considered unproblematic. But since 2011, the available water supply has remained below the calculated amount — in 2018, Germany had only around 119 billion cubic meters of water available as a renewable resource.  After three particularly hot and dry summers in a row, some experts warned in January that the soil in Germany was almost completely dried out.

Now, at least for the time being, water authorities are struggling to cope with the opposite extreme. Dams that for a long time were recording low water levels are now literally filled to bursting point. For days after the initial flooding, the situation of the Steinbachtal dam in the Euskirchen district remained worrying. Some towns and villages situated below the dam were evacuated, as it was taking longer than planned to drain off the water that is putting a strain on the structure. Residents could only return on Monday.