COP28-Livestream on December 10th from 2.30 p.m. (Dubai Time): Press Conference with Steffi Lemke and Annalena Baerbock
Participate online

Water protection policy in Germany

The long-term goals of German water protection policy are:

  • to maintain or restore good ecological and chemical quality of water bodies,
  • to ensure an adequate supply of drinking and process water, both in terms of quality and quantity, and
  • to secure for the long term all other water uses that serve the public interest. Such uses include leisure and recreation, shipping and energy production.

To achieve these goals, water protection policy is based on:

  • the precautionary principle,
  • the polluter pays principle and full coverage of costs,
  • cooperation among all water users and stakeholders in water protection.

To implement these principles of water protection policy, the federal government and the Länder have developed a set of powerful legal instruments.


The legal instruments for water protection cover the following legal areas:

1. Regulatory law

Regulatory law stipulates that water bodies in Germany are subject to state management. Citizens and authorities are obliged to use water responsibly. The most important federal law is the Federal Water Act (Wasserhaushaltsgesetz, WHG, in German), originally adopted in 1957. A substantially revised version entered into force in March 2010. This amendment completed the transposition of the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) into German national law and allowed the German Länder to adapt their respective water acts to the European provisions. The amendment created the legal basis for transboundary, sustainable water management. The goal is to achieve good status for all water bodies by 2027 at the latest, not just in terms of pollutant levels but also with regard to the status of native aquatic animal and plant species. To this end, management plans must be drawn up. To coordinate this process, river basin communities have been established among the Länder sharing joint responsibility for the catchment areas of large rivers. To learn more about the transposition of the WFD into German law, click here.

In addition, the Federal Water Act transposed the EU Floods Directive, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the provisions of the Industrial Emissions Directive that apply to water legislation in Germany. There are also several key ordinances regulating the implementation of the Federal Water Act. These include the Waste Water Ordinance (Abwasserverordnung, AbwV), the Surface Waters Ordinance (Oberflächengewässerverordnung, OGewV) and the Groundwater Ordinance (Grundwasserverordnung, GrwV). These ordinances also implement important EU provisions. For example, the Waste Water Ordinance transposes the European Urban Waste Water Directive and the EU’s “best available technology” conclusions (BAT conclusions) for the waste water sector. The Groundwater Ordinance implements the EU Groundwater Directive; the Surface Waters Ordinance implements the EU environmental quality standards for water bodies.

Water legislation promulgated by the Länder (both acts and ordinances) supplements federal law to an extent; in some cases these laws contain rules that deviate from federal provisions.

2. Law on water charges

According to the federal Waste Water Charges Act (Abwasserabgabengesetz, AbwAG) and supplementary provisions of the Länder, charges must be paid for the discharge of waste water containing certain contaminants into water bodies. These charges provide an economic incentive for reducing the introduction of pollutants to the water to a minimum.
 In addition, the majority of the Länder also levy charges for groundwater abstraction, some also for abstraction from surface water bodies (“water cent”). The objective is to encourage the conservation of precious water resources.

3. Law on substances

There are a number of laws and regulations which protect water resources from harmful substances. Notable among these are the federal Washing and Cleansing Agents Act (Wasch- und Reinigungsmittelgesetz), the Chemicals Act (Chemikaliengesetz), the Plant Protection Act (Pflanzenschutzgesetz), the Fertiliser Act (Düngemittelgesetz) and relevant ordinances.

4. Liability and criminal law

Anyone who pollutes a water body and causes harm to another person must pay compensation. This is a general rule under civil liability law. Where the damage poses a threat to the environment, additional obligations to compensate apply under the Federal Water Act (section 22) or under the Environmental Liability Act (in German). Polluting a water body without authorisation may also be considered a crime under certain circumstances in accordance with the provisions of the Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB, section 324).


According to the distribution of competences under Germany’s Basic Law, the German federal government has concurrent legislative competence in the area of water protection. The Länder can deviate from federal provisions, with the exception of substance-specific, installation-specific and EU regulations. Deviations are, however, relatively few and far between. Many Länder have passed supplementary provisions. Procedural provisions are typically found in the Länder’s administrative procedures acts, which is not the case for legislative areas like immissions control and nuclear energy.

The execution of federal and Land legislation is exclusively the responsibility of the Länder. The federal government has no supervisory powers in this regard. In most of the Länder, with the exception of the city states and very small Länder, water management follows the typical three-level structure of administrative bodies in general:

  • Supreme authority: ministry with competence for water management, typically the environment ministry (responsibilities: guidance and overarching administrative procedures)
  • Intermediate authority: district authorities, regional commissioners, state offices (responsibilities: regional water management planning, procedures under water management law that are of special significance, administrative procedures)
  • Lower authority: lower water authorities in counties and non-county municipalities, technical authorities (responsibilities: procedures under water management law, expert advice, monitoring of water bodies and discharges).

To coordinate water management policy, the Länder and the federal government have formed the German Working Group on water issues of the Federal States and the Federal Government (Bund/Länderarbeitsgemeinschaft Wasser, LAWA, in German). In the working group, the Länder coordinate administrative implementation with one another and coordinate legislation with the federal government.

The most important water management tasks of the local authorities are central water supply and waste water disposal. Waste water disposal is provided as a public service, water supply is sometimes privatised to an extent. Charges (contributions, prices and fees) are levied to cover the costs of these services.

Policy-making in dialogue

Good environmental and consumer protection policies are achieved when they are a joint endeavour. Get in touch with us, or get involved through one of our options for dialogue.