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Questions raised about Swiss water quality

Most Swiss rivers have been dammed or diverted (picture: swiss image) Most Swiss rivers have been dammed or diverted (picture: swiss image)

Water quality experts have expressed concern about Switzerland's water supplies and its ageing water treatment facilities.

This content was published on March 22, 2002 - 10:18

The concerns were voiced on the occasion of World Water Day.

"In Switzerland we have done a lot to protect water in terms of quality," said Dr Bruno Schädler, head of division for water resources management at the Federal Office for Water and Geology in Bern.

"But with new chemical or pharmacological materials, which are getting into the water and are quite difficult to take out in water treatment plants, we have a new type of problem."

Nitrates problem

It's a view shared by Rolf Weingarner, hydrology specialist at Bern University, who said nitrates used in agriculture were the main culprit.

"We have around 400 active substances in plant treatment products which are approved for use in Switzerland and I think the problem now is it's not possible to make definitive judgements on the effects of these products on human health and on the aquatic ecology."

Weingarner said ageing infrastructure also needed renewing and he identified another problem which has been cited as a possible explanation for declining fish numbers.

"About 90 per cent of Switzerland's rivers and streams have been dammed, canalised and channelled underground," he said. "As a result the natural functions of these water courses have been seriously impaired."

Unlike many countries, Switzerland is blessed with an abundance of water and the Swiss mountains are vitally important for the water supply of neighbouring states.

Switzerland has about 20 per cent of the catchment area of the Rhine river to the Netherlands but the Swiss mountains provide about 50 per cent of the river flow in the Netherlands. In July, that figure can be as high as 70 per cent.

Downstream flows

Schädler envisages a time when Switzerland might have to take more care of how much water goes downstream.

"If you are thinking of the problem of climate change, for instance, it might be in future that in winter we have more high water situations due to less snowfall and more rainfall, and in summer and autumn, it might be that we have droughts so that there will be less water to give downstream to Italy or Germany or the Netherlands. They might ask us to manage our water quantity better."

Weingarner said it was interesting that 2002 is United Nations year of mountains and that next year the UN focus is on freshwater. "It is indicative how important mountains and water will be in this century," he said.

by Vincent Landon

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