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The most valuable Swiss commodity--water: climate change forecasts predict a seven per cent loss in water flowing from the Alps by the year 2050. Despite this, water remains one of Switzerland's most valuable natural resources. Swiss News takes a look at the privileges and responsibilities that this resource brings.

It seems that 'Swiss' simply stands for high quality. The same is true for its water. It is no surprise then that 624 million litres of it were bottled for sale in 2006. Nevertheless, aside from its mineral content, bottled water is not necessarily any cleaner than that which dribbles from your own tap. Even the Rhazunzer mineral water website openly admits, "tap water in Switzerland is hygienically perfect and strenuously controlled".

Despite its apparent abundance, the Swiss population uses only about 162 litres of drinking water a day, per head-about a third less than most other industrial lands. According to BAFU (National Bureau for the Environment), 40 per cent of this can be piped straight from the ground to houses without requiring purification.

Nevertheless, Switzerland is not immune to water pollution. Though classic signs of this, foaming streams and opacity are a thing of the past, the struggle to keep water clean continues.


Stephan Muller, head of BAFU's water department, says that problems these days involve invisible contaminants, which are harmful even in "extremely small quantities", (nano- to micrograms per litre), and cannot be removed through traditional methods.

Called micropollutants, the toxins "occur in cleansers, toothpaste, paint, pesticides, practically everywhere... There are especially a lot of new substances in medications that didn't exist earlier."

Though the full scope of their potential effects is as yet unknown, they are known to cause sterility and mutations in waterborne creatures, and it is feared that "in the long term, they could prove to be extremely dangerous and damaging--with effects that cannot be reversed," Muller explains.

Presently, only one Swiss sewage plant, located in Regensdorf, Zurich, has the technology to remove these micropollutants.

The facility is part of BAFU's 'Strategie MicroPoll' project launched in 2006, to determine "how residential sewage treatment can be optimised so that as few micropollutants as possible enter the waterways," says Muller.

A big part of the solution is upgrading other facilities in like fashion to Regensdorf, which would increase the taxpayer's sewage costs by less than ten per cent.

Others range from on-location treatment facilities in hospitals and retirement homes (where medications are used in higher quantities) to advanced toilettes that separate urine (the primary carrier of these substances) from other wastes.

Water power

Swiss hydroelectricity, a SFr 2.0 billion a year industry, was born about 130 years ago when one of the world's first hydroelectric plants in St Moritz began producing energy. Now there are about 530 hydroelectric plants producing around 57 per cent of Switzerland's power.

Especially in the mountain cantons of Bern, Uri, Ticino and Graubunden, today's hydroelectric infrastructure is unexpectedly complex, even more so than meets the eye--thanks to elaborate systems of underground ducts which network various watershed zones, routing water to hydroelectric locales.

Contrary to common belief, not every hydroelectric plant requires a reservoir; many are powered directly from streams and rivers.

A good example of this is the plant in Amsteg, Uri, which uses water from intakes along four estuaries to turn its turbines. Located strategically along one of the Swiss national railway's busiest stretches, the Gotthard north-south axis, this plant provides 30 per cent of the entire Swiss train network's power.

Shortage looms

Looking ahead, experts say that there will be an electricity shortage in Switzerland sometime between 2015-2020, prompting a new energy policy to be drafted by parliament earlier this year. In addition to expressing a need for all sectors to increase energy efficiency, it also promised to further promote the development of renewable energy sources.

It is in this climate that hydroelectric energy has witnessed a renaissance of sorts. In fact, According to Bundesrat Moritz Leuenberger, further development in hydroelectric facilities has the potential "to replace three nuclear plants the size of the Muhleberg [nuclear power plant]".

Potential, however, can be a misleading word. Despite the potential of Swiss hydroelectricity, Leuenberger is also aware that, with present political and social conditions, new hydroelectric facilities in the Alps are hardly feasible, as nature conservancy groups vehemently oppose the proposed upgrades.

A good example of this is the Grimsel hydroelectric plant, KWO, in Canton Bern, which recently sought permission to add another 23 metres of height to their largest reservoir, at a cost of SFr 210 million. The project naturally seeks to increase the plant's electrical output, but would also increase the reservoirs' effectiveness as sponge for excess water in the event of heavy rainfall--aiding in the prevention of flooding.

The building permit was granted in March 2007 on condition that KWO take, in their words, "extraordinary" counter measures to compensate the environmental impact of the project. It was a long list of demands that included establishing nature reserves amounting to more than twice the area of land lost, and planting 50 trees for every one removed, according to KWO.

Despite whatever resistance, Leuenberger is convinced that "if we don't fill the energy gap [with water], then we'll have to fill it with imported energy, or a new nuclear power plant...a solution that Swiss men and women would hardly support."


The potential raw force of water, though impressive when harnessed, can be staggeringly destructive when unrestrained. In a mountainous country as densely populated as Switzerland, that spells trouble, as witnessed in the recent floods of 2005, which caused an estimated SFr 2.5 billion in damage throughout the country.

This year alone, a spate of violent thunderstorms, dropping up to 80 litres of water per square metre an hour, have caused several million francs worth of damage to buildings, roads and railways.

The Swiss have built an impressive water management infrastructure to protect themselves. Take the hundreds of shelves in the steep Gruonbach outside of Fluelen, Uri, (see photo above) which have turned a former streambed into a series of cascades, preventing water from gaining dangerous momentum as it descends the mountain. Yet, this is just one small stream of literally thousands.

For experts whose job it is to mitigate the effects of flooding, preparation is essential. In addition to the infrastructure, there are special army units trained to handle floods and a national alarm system to inform residents of impending danger.

But more improvements are needed. According to Lucerne water management expert Alfred Wriest, problems lie in the fact that "the majority of Switzerland is developed, graded and intensively used," leaving too little space for water when it comes in excess quantifies.

Communities have allowed too many risks. Wriest took as example the Laggo Maggiore in Canton Ticino saying, "it is simply not sustainable to build houses too close to the lake as in Locarno, when one knows very well that the lake overflows every five years."

Managing water.., an evolving strategy Earlier, rivers were straightened and dikes were built to flush the run-off quickly from a region. These techniques have actually caused flooding in some instances, and are now regarded as oversimplified solutions to a complex issue.

An example is the junction of the Unterschachen and Reuss rivers outside of Altdorf, Uri, where repeated flooding occurred in 1977, 1987 and 2005. Here, one straightened river canal meets another at nearly a right angle, resulting in a bottleneck where water and flood debris back up, inundating the surrounding area.

Now, coordinating and above all, slowing water flow to mitigate problems is part of modern flood planning. In 2005, facing threateningly high water levels on the Sihl River around Zurich, the outflow of Lake Zurich was "intentionally reduced so that there weren't problems in the Limmat, further down river."

Much more preservationist and forward-thinking than before, water management today aims "to create enough room for flowing water to fulfil its diverse ecological functions, and decrease the amount of flooding," says Wriest.

This was the philosophy behind the SFr 1.0 billion 'Rhone Thur Project' completed in 2006, the purpose of which was to return a length of the Rhone River in Canton Valais to a more natural state. Although such projects are necessary, Wriest said the "amount of work required is enormous. Ultimately, it becomes a struggle over every metre of land."

Future challenges

As the climate warms, precipitation in the future is predicted to become more sporadic: bringing longer droughts and more severe floods--which could have resounding effects locally. Many are convinced, however, that the problem of water will indeed become a global one, as reserves are depleted, and sources poisoned.

Though public officials and politicians seem to be working hard to preserve Switzerland's advantageous abundance of water, it is clearly up to everyone to use this natural resource, and all that it provides us with, wisely.
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Title Annotation:NEWS FEATURE
Author:Brunjes, Justin
Publication:Swiss News
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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