switzerlanden
Switzerland must take care of its groundwater

Switzerland must take care of its groundwater

22-03-2022
Switzerland is in the enviable position of having enough drinking water and large water reserves. The wastewater infrastructure is excellent, and the water quality has improved in recent decades. But the increasing levels of micropollutants in groundwater are a major challenge for society, government and the environment.
  • Dieter Küffer
    Dieter
    Küffer
    Executive Director

Speed read

  • A rethinking of the way water is used as a resource must take place in Switzerland, the water castle of Europe. 
  • Despite very large groundwater reserves, the groundwater is becoming increasingly polluted & there is a need for action. 
  • With regard to micropollutants, wastewater treatment must be improved regionally, with support & pressure from the federal government.

Water is the basis of all life on our planet – and water is also essential for social and economic progress. However, the value of “blue gold” is still underestimated, at least in water-rich industrialized countries, and the use of water is unsustainable. The United Nations has been warning for years about a global water crisis that is being aggravated by climate change. In the Global Risks Report 2022 of the World Economic Forum, short- and long-term environmental risks occupy the top ranks ahead of social, geopolitical and economic risks.

The value of “blue gold” is still underestimated

Switzerland: Water in abundance?

Switzerland is only marginally affected by the global water problem in any direct way: We are Europe’s water castle and are barely familiar with water scarcity or quality problems. And even during hot years, there is so much water that agricultural areas can also be supplied with sufficient water. High rainfall in the Alps feeds rivers, lakes and groundwater reservoirs, while snow and glaciers serve as water reserves. But for how much longer? A detailed look at the water situation in Switzerland shows that a rethink on the country’s approach to water resources must also take place here.

Fresh water, salt water, drinking water, groundwater, surface water, wastewater, and so on – there are many different types of water. Whenever it comes up in discussion, one usually equates the term ‘water’ with drinking water. Of the drinking water consumed today in Switzerland, 55 % is attributed to households and small businesses, and 25 % to trade and industry. 5 % is used for public purposes, such as fountains, and around 3 % for the internal consumption of water utilities. Water losses in the distribution system amounts to as much as 12 %, according to the Swiss Gas and Water Industry Association (SVGW). Overall, drinking water consumption has declined from 500 liters per capita and day in 1977 to 410 liters per capita and day in 2000, and to 300 liters per capita and day in 2020.

Stay informed on Sustainable Investing with monthly mail updates
Stay informed on Sustainable Investing with monthly mail updates
Subscribe
This development – driven by a growing awareness among consumers, water-saving household appliances and more efficient water use in industry and trade – is pleasing. However, it only shows consumption developments within Switzerland.

Spoilers: organic trace substances in groundwater

Drinking water is most important to people. In Switzerland, 80 % of it comes from groundwater, of which about half is spring water, while 20 % originates from lakes and rivers. Groundwater is therefore an extremely important domestic resource and at the same time a key element of the natural water cycle. Groundwater occurs when rainfall or surface water – e.g. from streams and rivers – seeps into the soil. It flows into underground cavities and comes back to the surface as springs or through pumps. Groundwater quality partly depends on the quality of the soil, which can restrain or filter out pollutants.

While Switzerland has very large groundwater reserves, the groundwater is becoming more and more polluted. Increasing temperatures and contaminants reduce the water quality. Pesticides, nitrate from fertilizers, solvents and cleaning agents from industry, as well as detergents, shower gels and medicines from households – groundwater pollution has no limits. Micropollutants (organic trace substances) are particularly serious. They can get into groundwater in the form of heavy metals, microplastics or other synthetic substances. Almost all protagonists in the economic system – ranging from the petrochemical and agricultural sectors, retailers and construction companies through to hospitals and households – are responsible for such pollutants.

Treatment plants at their technological limits

These sometimes highly toxic substances flow with wastewater into treatment plants. While natural pollutants can be broken down relatively easily by the microorganisms used in the clarifying tanks, synthetic substances are largely unchanged as they make their way back into the rivers and lakes. Furthermore, groundwater regenerates only very slowly; contaminants can still be found in it today even though their use was banned many years ago.

Groundwater regenerates only slowly

The NAQUA National Groundwater Monitoring service – the joint monitoring program of the federal government and cantons – records the quality and quantity of groundwater at around 600 monitoring stations in Switzerland. A 2019 study showed that nitrate and residues from pesticides impair groundwater quality the most. Especially affected are groundwater reserves in the midlands, which practice intensive farming and are densely populated (see Chart 2).

Society, government and the business community have recognized the need for action and are pulling together to protect groundwater. The federal government plans to preserve groundwater resources as well as habitats dependent on groundwater, such as swamps, spring biotopes and wetlands. For this purpose, it has developed an integrated strategy for water protection, which is to be implemented by the cantons. In line with the revision of the water protection law, the Parliament in 2014 laid the foundations to finance the upgrades of selected treatment plants. The new regulations have been in force since 2016, and their main objectives are to safeguard the quality of drinking water, to protect flora and fauna, and to reduce the amount of pollutants that drain into countries that are located downstream.

Federal government agrees to upgrades

What does this mean in concrete terms? By 2040, around 100 of the 800 treatment plants in Switzerland should be equipped with additional treatment stages for the removal of micropollutants. As a result, many organic trace substances could be eliminated from wastewater in regions with heavily polluted waterways. Among the treatment plants affected by these measures are the biggest wastewater treatment plants (known as ARA) in Switzerland, large treatment plants in the catchment area of lakes, as well as smaller treatment plants that pipe wastewater into rivers even though it still contains more than 10 % organic trace substances. Starting in 2028, small plants that channel their wastewater into waterways located in environmentally sensitive areas will be included.

The project is financed by a special-purpose wastewater fund of the federal government, which is contributing 75 % to the upgrade of the treatment plants. The fund is supported by a wastewater tax that is charged throughout Switzerland and is intended to bring in around CHF 1,25 billion by 2040. A decisive factor for the tax levied by the federal government is the number of residents who are connected to a treatment plant. As soon as the proprietors of the treatment plants have implemented the relevant measures for the elimination of trace substances, they are exempt from the tax.

The Water Castle should remain a water castle

Switzerland performs very well by international comparison when it comes to the quality and availability of drinking water. Wastewater treatment in Switzerland is a success story, and water quality in the country has improved significantly in recent decades, thanks to the virtually nationwide network of treatment plants. Today, 98 % of the Swiss population are connected to a treatment plant, compared with only 14 % in 1965. But there is a need for action to protect groundwater – the main source of drinking water – and wastewater treatment must be improved at a regional level to eliminate micropollutants.

Switzerland benefits from its geographical location in the Alps, which deliver drinking water in abundance. Snow and glaciers fill the rivers and lakes, but these sources are likely to dry up more and more in the coming decades. It is therefore even more important to keep groundwater clean and to deal with water resources in a careful and frugal way. Proactive, far-sighted measures are needed for waterway and groundwater protection, and an even better pollutant management system is required at regional level, particularly in the agriculture sector. Only if Switzerland manages and protects its groundwater sustainably can it continue to maintain its status as a water castle in the future.

Subjects related to this article are:
Logo

Disclaimer Robeco Switzerland Ltd.

The information contained on these pages is for marketing purposes and solely intended for Qualified Investors in accordance with the Swiss Collective Investment Schemes Act of 23 June 2006 (“CISA”) domiciled in Switzerland, Professional Clients in accordance with Annex II of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II (“MiFID II”) domiciled in the European Union und European Economic Area with a license to distribute / promote financial instruments in such capacity or herewith requesting respective information on products and services in their capacity as Professional Clients. 

The Funds are domiciled in Luxembourg and The Netherlands. ACOLIN Fund Services AG, postal address: Affolternstrasse 56, 8050 Zürich, acts as the Swiss representative of the Fund(s). UBS Switzerland AG, Bahnhofstrasse 45, 8001 Zurich, postal address: Europastrasse 2, P.O. Box, CH-8152 Opfikon, acts as the Swiss paying agent. The prospectus, the Key Investor Information Documents (KIIDs), the articles of association, the annual and semi-annual reports of the Fund(s) may be obtained, on simple request and free of charge, at the office of the Swiss representative ACOLIN Fund Services AG. The prospectuses are also available via the website www.robeco.ch. Some funds about which information is shown on these pages may fall outside the scope of the Swiss Collective Investment Schemes Act of 26 June 2006 (“CISA”) and therefore do not (need to) have a license from or registration with the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority (FINMA). 

Some funds about which information is shown on this website may not be available in your domicile country. Please check the registration status in your respective domicile country. To view the RobecoSwitzerland Ltd. products that are registered/available in your country, please go to the respective Fund Selector, which can be found on this website and select your country of domicile. 

Neither information nor any opinion expressed on this website constitutes a solicitation, an offer or a recommendation to buy, sell or dispose of any investment, to engage in any other transaction or to provide any investment advice or service. An investment in a Robeco Switzerland Ltd. product should only be made after reading the related legal documents such as management regulations, prospectuses, annual and semi-annual reports. 

By clicking “I agree” you confirm that you/the company you represent falls under one of the above-mentioned categories of addressees and that you have read, understood and accept the terms of use for this website.

I Disagree