Green Extremes: Germany's Failing Environmental Projects
Part 3: Water
Showerhead technology has undergone rapid development in recent years. Less water, more air, says the European Union's environmental design guideline. Gone are the days when it was enough for a showerhead to simply distribute water. Today an aerosol is generated through a complicated process in the interior of the showerhead. The moisture content in the resulting air-water mixture is so low and the air content so high that taking a shower feels more like getting blow-dried.
The government is even teaching our smallest citizens how important it is to treat precious water responsibly. The Environment Ministry's children's website admonishes them to "Think about how you can save water! Taking a shower is better for the environment than taking a bath. Turn off the water when you're soaping yourself. Never let the water run when you're not using it. And maybe you can spend less time in the shower, too."
This is all very well and good, but there's only one problem: It stinks. Our street is filled with the stench of decay. It's especially bad in the summer, when half of Berlin is under a cloud of gas.
A "Competency Center" established by the Berlin Water Authority recently published a list of the neighborhoods where the problem is especially egregious. Ironically, the upscale Gendarmenmarkt square tops the list. Pariser Platz, at the Brandenburg Gate, smells like a diaper pail. It isn't just a problem in Berlin. Entire neighborhoods are also affected in Hamburg, the northeastern city of Rostock and the western Ruhr region.
Our consumption has declined so much that there is not enough water going through the pipes to wash away fecal matter, urine and food waste, causing blockages. The inert brown sludge sloshes back and forth in the pipes, which are now much too big, releasing its full aroma.
The water authorities are trying to offset the stench with odor filters and perfumed gels that come in lavender, citrus and spruce scents. But toxic heavy metals like copper, nickel and lead are also accumulating in the sewage system. Sulfuric acid is corroding the pipes, causing steel to rust and concrete to crumble. It's a problem that no amount of deodorant can solve.
The waterworks must now periodically flush their pipes and conduits. The water we save with our low-flow toilets is simply being pumped directly through hoses into the sewage system below. On some days, an additional half a million cubic meters of tap water is run through the Berlin drainage system to ensure what officials call the "necessary flow rate."
Germany has a lot of water. It has many rivers and lakes. The amount of rain that falls from the skies over Germany is five times as much as the entire water requirements of the entire population and industry. Less than 3 percent of the country's water reserves would be enough to supply all households.
The obvious solution to our pipeline problems would be to use more water again. But that's not how the Germans work. People who have been urged for so long to use as little water as possible when taking a shower don't just toss their habits overboard. The conservation appeals have created deep imprints in our psyche.
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