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Water treatment in Germany

General Information

Germany has an efficient water management sector. German water technologies and know-how are highly regarded throughout the world. The German government ensures effective water protection that involves all stakeholders:
- Waste water charges create an economic incentive to reduce, as far as possible, the amount of waste water discharged.
- A range of laws and regulations ensure the protection of water from inputs of harmful substances and the conservation of water bodies as habitats.
- Criminal and liability law penalize the pollution of water bodies and ensure that environmental damage is compensated

The discharge of wastewater from industrial and technical enterprises is subject to legal provisions. Since 1976, it has been obligatory to comply with nationwide "minimum requirements" regarding wastewater production, avoidance and treatment, which were adapted over the years to the best available technology. This means, a permit for the discharge of wastewater shall be granted only if the pollutant load of the wastewater in question is kept as low as possible through application of appropriate procedures using the best available technology. This is the requirement of the Federal Water Act [/gewaesserschutz/downloads/doc/print/6900.php].

The specific legal provisions are laid down in the Waste Water Ordinance [/english/water_management/downloads/doc/print/3381.php] and in several (still applicable) administrative provisions on wastewater.

Altogether there are provisions for the discharge of wastewater from municipalities and 53 branches of production (industry sectors), for example for sectors in the food industry, for the chemical industry, the iron, steel and metal processing industry, and for textile manufacturing and finishing.

In order to protect waters from the accidental entry of pollutants, the Federal Water Act (§ 19g) also defines how substances hazardous to water are to be dealt with when being transported, stored or handled. According to the Act, installations must be designed, installed, erected and maintained in such a way as to prevent pollution of waters. This is applicable, for instance, to petrol and heating oil tanks, refineries and chemical plants. The provisions for these plants are based on three water hazard classes, namely whether the substances pose a low hazard to waters, a hazard to waters or a severe hazard to waters.

As a result of stringent environmental legislation and numerous voluntary technical measures in the industrial sector, considerable progress has been made over the years in the treatment and avoidance of industrial wastewater. The overall improvement that can be ascertained in the water quality of rivers, streams and lakes is proof of this.


Specific Information

The following information is taken from the publication “Water Management in Germany. Water Supply - Waste Water Disposal” by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 2011 (

Public waste water disposal in figures (2011)
  • Waste water treatment plants: almost 10,000
  • Treated waste water volume: 10.1 billion m3 (5.2 billion m3 waste water und 4.9 billion m3 storm water and sewer infiltration water)
  • Price: € 2.29 per m3 waste water (min. € 2.06 – max. € 2.61)(2007)
  • Investments in 2010: € 4.5 billion
  • Length of public sewage network: approx. 540,000 km, approx. 66,000 storm water discharge systems
  • Employees: approx. 40,000
Public water supply
With available water resources of 188 billion m3 Germany is a water-rich country. In 2007 around 32.0 billion m3 of water was abstracted from groundwater and surface waters by industry and for supplying private households. This is less than 20 % of the potential water supply, i.e. over 80 % of the water available currently remains unused. Applied to the abstracted water volumes, this means that the public water supply abstracted around 5.1 billion m3 of water to provide the population with drinking water. Groundwater reserves are the most important source of drinking water. As the second biggest user of water, the mining sector and the manufacturing industry abstracted around 7.2 billion m3 for industrial purposes. Thermal power plants have the largest water demand – approx. 19.7 billion m3 as cooling water for energy production. Water used for agriculture only plays a minor role in Germany.

Public waste water disposal
Waste water treated in public sewage plants
A total of 10.1 billion m3 of waste water was treated in public sewage plants in 2007, almost exclusively through biological waste water treatment. The volume of waste water is composed of sewage water, rainwater and infiltration water in almost equal parts.

The expansion of waste water treatment plants carried out in recent years, the high level of connection to the sewage system and to municipal mechanical-biological plants and plants with selective nitrogen and phosphate removal (implementation of Annex 1 of the Waste Water Ordinance and Directive 91/271/EEC) have brought about a significant improvement in biological water quality. In 2005 municipal waste water treatment plants achieved a reduction in nutri-ent loads of 90 % for phosphorus and 81 % for nitrogen. The EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive requires a reduction of 75 % for both substances.
With more than 6,900 municipal waste water disposal companies and almost 10,000 waste water treatment plants, the German waste water sector is tightly organised. Currently around 78 million inhabitants are connected to centralised municipal sewage plants. Additionally, around 30 million population equivalents from industry, commerce and agriculture are also treated at the municipal sewage plants. From 2002 to 2009, nitrogen removal increased from 74 % to 81 %. In 2009, the nationwide average of phosphorus removal was 91 % and the phosphorus concentration in sewage plant effluent averaged 0.78 mg/l. All in all, on a nationwide average the requirements of the European Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive have been complied with or clearly exceeded.

Here you can find more information on sewage sludge disposal and quality in Germany and many other countries around the world:
Global Atlas of Excreta, Wastewater Sludge, and Biosolids Management: Moving forward the sustainable and welcome Use of a global Resource, pp. 315-320 (Germany)
In the following you find some specific information in the field of drinking water in Germany:
Press Release No. 51/2011 by the Federal Environment Agency, P.O. box 1406, 06813 Dessau-Roßlau, Germany, from 28 October 2011:

Improved assurance of drinking water quality in buildings
Amendments to Drinking Water Ordinance provide more protection against legionella and chemicals in installation materials
A number of amendments to the Drinking Water Ordinance (TrinkwV) have boosted the quality standards for drinking water. The centre of attention has been drinking water pipes and systems in buildings which, as has been determined, may not impair the quality of drinking water. Starting this November the drinking water supply systems in commercially used buildings and apartment buildings must be tested for legionella. Up to now this obligation applied only to public buildings. “This considerable improvement in consumer protection will help to avoid legionella contamination of drinking water”, said Thomas Holzmann, Vice-President of the Federal Environment Agency (UBA). Certain technical regulations governing construction and operation of new drinking water supply systems have also become binding. This is to ensure that no unsuitable materials are used in drinking water systems which might emit traces of chemicals into the drinking water. Germany has become the first country in the European Union (EU) to introduce a limit on uranium in drinking water.
Drinking water supply systems in commercially used buildings and in accordance with the Drinking Water Ordinance installations in apartment buildings, too, must be tested for legionella as of November 2011. The 1st Ordinance to amend the Drinking Water Ordinance of 3 May 2011 has laid this down in law. The law had formerly only applied to buildings in which water was supplied to the general public. The ordinance also establishes for the first time a so-called technical measures trigger value for the presence of legionella. That value is set at 100 colony-building units per 100 millilitres water. If this level is reached or exceeded, public health offices can require the operator to determine the cause of, and eliminate the source of, pollution. Legionella can cause serious, sometime fatal pneumonia or flu-like Pontiac fever. Although humans are not carriers of the disease they are infected by inhaling aerosols. Dangerous amounts of legionella can accumulate in warm water, such as may occur when necessary temperatures (< 25 for cold water and > 55 °C for hot water) are not reached as a result of construction defects. Inoperative and illegally disconnected pipes in the system can also promote legionella growth since water stagnates there.
Water system components are now more strictly regulated by the Drinking Water Ordinance to better protect drinking water quality in Germany against contamination. Systems operators must comply with established best practice. Effective immediately, only pipes and fittings that emit a minimum, of any, chemicals and which have been tested to meet that requirement may be used. Quality marks provide such proof. Any new installation of components that have not been tested now amounts to a misdemeanor offence. The background to this overhaul in legislation is evidence that chemicals from faulty and improper installation materials can dissolve into drinking water. They can deteriorate water quality and foster bacteria (legionella) growth. An added benefit is the better protection against contamination by non-potable water (rainwater or heating system water). The compulsory installation of a protective device ensures that water of inferior quality from backflow does not enter the drinking water supply system.
Another amendment to TrinkwV concerns the heavy metal uranium. As of 1 November 2011, Germany will be the only country in the EU to have established a limit value on uranium in drinking water, capping it at 10 microgrammes per litre of water. However, this change is only relevant to a few, mostly small drinking water areas in which the presence of uranium occurs in higher concentrations. The metal is relatively toxic and is now subject to a limit in drinking water in Germany that is very low in global comparison. This will ensure that sensitised persons are also provided protection against the renal damage that uranium can cause. The radioactivity of uranium, on the other hand, is only of concern for health in concentrations that are ten times or higher.

Further information and links:
Amended Drinking Water Ordinance (in German)
UBA publication “Rund ums Trinkwasser”
UBA background paper “Legionellen im Trinkwasser”:
UBA Executive Summary of 9.12.2009 (updated on 01.11.11) regarding new cap for uranium in drinking water (in German): Kurzbegründung der gesundheitlichen Leit- und Grenzwerte
Position paper by Drinking Water Commission at UBA (TWK) of 03.11.2008 on six frequently asked questions about uranium in drinking water (in German): Uran im Trinkwasser - Stellungnahme der TWK zu sechs häufig gestellten Fragen PDF / 128 KB
UBA publication:
“Demographic change as a challenge to secure and develop cost- and resource efficient wastewater infrastructure” and many other publications can be found here:


There are many players for the issue, be it ministries, municipalities, universities, private and public institutions at federal, federal states (Länder) or local level. So this list is just a tiny bit from the big apple as an example
★ Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety
★ Federal Environmental Agency
★ DWA - German Association for Water, Wastewater and Waste
★ DVGW - German Technical and Scientific Association for Gas and Water
★ German Water Partnership (GWP)
★ Fachvereinigung Betriebs- und Regenwassernutzung e.V. (fbr)

Practical examples

European project under the 7th Framework Programme
SMILES investigates improvements in the EU industrial laundry sector. It will lead to the design of the smart EU laundry for 2015, with substantial water and energy savings, and CO2 reductions. The industrial laundry sector was selected by the EU as it has a high water and energy use per employee with a large potential for resource savings.
The EU-27 industrial laundry sector, with 11.000 establishments (more than 90% SMEs), washes 2,7 billion kg of soiled textiles per year (wet weight) employing 168.000 workers and utilizing 42 million m3 of wash water and 60 PJ of energy per year. It generates similar quantities of waste water, to be treated, and substantial CO2 emissions (3,8 million tons CO2/year). (…) Focused and coordinated research to develop and improve innovative technologies can greatly enhance the performance of the sector. The conventional laundry processes are characterized by large enthalpy destructions and resource inefficiencies.
Within the international SMILES consortium participate the German wfk- Cleaning Technology Institute ( and the German SME Chemische Fabrik Kreussler & Co. GmbH. For more information

DeSol – Solar seawater desalination by gravity-supported vacuum distillation
The Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology IGB and a European Consortium consisting of partners from industry and research centers (6th FP of the EU) develop an energy efficient and cost-effective technology for sea water desalination.
A vacuum distillation process with multiple stages enables the efficient usage of heat at low temperatures. Although the process works at low pressure no vacuum pumps or injectors are needed. Instead an innovative concept utilising gravity for vacuum production and maintenance is used. The process control is mainly done by hydraulic or mechanical components in order to minimize the requirement of measurement and control equipment. The technology is simple and has a modular design. The automated operation and the low maintenance efforts enable a continuous and user friendly handling.
By using common thermal solar collectors for heat supply and (on a small scale) photovoltaic collectors for the electric components, an independence from fossil fuels and the electricity grid is achieved. Furthermore, the usage of waste heat from industry processes or other sources is possible
Small to medium sized facilities for a decentralised, sustainable drinking water production (100 litres to approx. 10m3/day), like:
Small scale (single households), hotels and tourism sites, small neighbourhoods with independent water supply, production of demineralised water or drinking water for small or medium sized enterprises
Further areas of application:
Reduction of waste water volume in various industry sectors (e.g. small enterprises) by concentration of the waste water and reuse of distillate for production
Concentration of solutions (e.g. chemical or food industry)

Company achieves savings in process water of over 90 % and a reduction of chemical consumption of 72 % by a new process management system.
This is one of many examples you can find in the following databases how to save water, energy, materials and other resources and improve processes for less environmental impact of production. In order to find the example above just click on item country “Germany” and search for “Farbe + Design GmbH”.
Here you can find the BAT Reference Document on Common Waste Water and Waste Gas Treatment/Management Systems in the Chemical Sector, the adopted one and the recent second draft of the work in progress :
On the website of the EIPPCB you can find Reference Documents for the Best Available Techniques in many industrial sectors including aspects of water and waste water .

Act Clean Database – click on item country/Germany for results;43&lang_id=1

Cleaner Production Germany Database, e.g. industrial waste water and many more

RETECH Information Portal on Waste Management made in Germany