Rivers and Lakes

From a hydrological point of view, the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany is divided into the river basins of the rivers Danube, Rhine, Ems, Weser, Elbe and Oder, the tributaries of the river Meuse and the coastal regions of the North and Baltic Seas. Effective water protection measures are necessary to conserve water bodies in Germany and improve their quality.

Precipitation is one of the main factors influencing the discharge levels of the rivers. Precipitation levels in Germany decrease from west to east, with the low mountain ranges of the Thuringian Forest and Harz forming a dividing line; in their rain shadow, long-term average precipitation is less than 500 millimetre. Long-term average precipitation levels in the Alps or the low mountain ranges themselves, however, exceed 1600 millimetre per year.

The goal of water protection in Germany is to conserve or restore a good ecological status of all inland water bodies. The input of harmful substances into water must be prevented. In addition, bodies of water, their banks and floodplains must be conserved or restored in such a way that the typical flora and fauna can thrive there.

Legal basis and responsibilities

The relevant provisions on managing surface waters are set out in Sections 25 to 44 of the Federal Water Act (Wasserhaushaltsgesetz - WHG). These provisions transpose the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) into German national law. The WFD plays an important role in planning and implementing effective measures to improve the quality of water. The implementation of water legislation and water protection measures falls within the competence of the Länder.

Current situation in Germany

Hydrological conditions have a major influence on both the chemical and biological status of watercourses. Precipitation, for example, leads to surface area run-off (diffuse sources e.g. agriculture), while higher discharges dilute substance concentrations from point sources.

Apart from the run-off, the various uses in a river basin and the structure of the water body also impact on water quality. Wastewater from industrial and municipal facilities and diffuse inputs from agricultural land are discharged into rivers, and rivers are used as traffic routes (shipping) and for energy generation (hydropower).

Pollution of rivers and lakes has been considerably reduced over the past 30 years. There has been a significant decrease in the substance load of water bodies and consequently an increase in oxygen concentrations, which are vital for fish fauna.

However, there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the water quality of German surface waters. The assessments of the ecological and chemical status of water, carried out as part of the national evaluations under the European Water Framework Directive, showed that only 8.2 percent of all surface waters reached a "very good" or "good" ecological status, while the chemical status was rated "good" for 84 percent of water bodies (in 2015).

Water protection efforts will increasingly focus on reducing diffuse sources of pollution and improving the structure of water bodies. Diffuse inputs come from agriculture, rainwater run-off, transport and other sources of air pollution.

Measures to improve water quality

  • requirements for water quality of rivers and lakes
  • continuous modernisation of municipal or industrial sewage treatment plants with improved purification technology
  • reduction of substance input from agriculture and industry restoration of river regions, for example
  • restoration of alluvial meadows, reconnection of backwaters, removal of bank reinforcements
  • establishment of continuity for fish fauna (for example fish ladders)
  • regular monitoring of water quality and water body structure
  • close international cooperation with the countries in transboundary river basins with internationally binding agreements

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