• Angelica Sirotin

Switzerland’s Mountain Waters at Risk

*AUTHOR BIO


Climate Change Impacts an Alpine Treasure

Water dam and reservoir lake in the Swiss Alps generating hydroelectricity.   ©NicoElNino/iStock
Water dam and reservoir lake in the Swiss Alps generating hydroelectricity. ©NicoElNino/iStock

It is no secret that climate change has a serious impact on the quality and ecology of aquatic environments. Switzerland is an example of a mountainous, alpine region that is at risk of experiencing a decline in water supply due to global warming as well as the human response to it. Researchers at Swiss research institute Eawag have revealed that human responses to climate change are just as impactful on our water systems—for example, through agriculture and hydropower installations. But what does this mean for the future of Switzerland’s water security?


Alpine Water Supplies Could Become at Risk

Switzerland is traditionally a water-rich country, averaging about 5,000 cubic meters (or 5 million liters) of renewable fresh water available per person per year. However, this abundance is unevenly distributed, and some alpine regions of Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein are also already facing water scarcity. Most of Switzerland’s water resources come from the Alps, which are also the main source of water for neighboring countries. Moreover, the Alps are an important source of hydropower, which provides approximately 60% of Switzerland’s electricity.






Draught condition map of Europe, July 10-31, 2022.   ©European Drought Observatory (JRC-EC) 2022
Drought condition map of Europe, July 10-31, 2022. ©European Drought Observatory (JRC-EC) 2022

As the climate changes, the amount of water available in the Alps is expected to decline. This is due to a combination of factors, including increased evaporation, decreased precipitation, and melting glaciers. The resulting decline in water availability will have a number of impacts on Switzerland, including decreased water supply for households, industry, and agriculture; increased costs for water treatment and distribution; and negative impacts on the environment.


Artificial water reservoirs provide back-up water supply capacity during dry summer seasons.   ©Manfred Stähli, WSL
Artificial water reservoirs provide back-up water supply capacity during dry summer seasons. ©Manfred Stähli, WSL

In response to these anticipated impacts, the Swiss government has put in place a series of measures. One such measure was the revision of the Water Protection Ordinance (WPO) in 2020, which introduced more stringent limits for twelve pesticides that are especially harmful to aquatic organisms. In addition, three medicinal compounds were added to the list of regulated substances for the first time.


Moreover, The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) reports that water quantity is not yet the most pressing issue in Switzerland. Rather, it is water quality that is cause for current concern, as agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock waste can contaminate water supplies. To address this problem, the Swiss government has implemented policies to improve water quality. For example, The Green Economy Action Plan, which was approved by the Federal Office for the Environment of the Swiss Federal Council in early 2013, includes several measures relating to consumption and production, waste, and raw materials. Ultimately, the goal is to better utilize minimal resources, such as freshwater, while also maintaining production needed for economic and societal functionality.

Aside from legislation, the promotion of vertical farming (cultivating plants in stacked layers in a controlled environment) is one way Switzerland is working to reduce the water footprint of crops. Vertical farming uses 95% less water than traditional farming methods and does not require pesticides or herbicides. This type of farming provides not only environmental but also economic benefits. Its reduced water consumption results in less strain on municipal resources and infrastructure, enabling farmers to save money on irrigation costs.

As Switzerland strives to become carbon-neutral by 2050, it is accelerating the transition to renewable energy, which includes doubling-down on its hydropower resources. For example, Switzerland will inaugurate its new, state-of-the-art pumped storage hydropower plant Nant de Drance on September 10/11, with a storage capacity of 900 MW of electricity (roughly 400,000 EV batteries). While hydropower is generally considered to be a low-carbon technology, it can have significant environmental impacts, including alteration of river flows, which can impact the ecology of the river system.

When less water flows downstream from hydropower plants, the river warms up and there is the risk that its bed will dry out in places.   ©Herzi Pinki/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
When less water flows downstream from hydropower plants, the river warms up and there is the risk that its bed will dry out in places. ©Herzi Pinki/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The effects of climate change on water resources are not unique to Switzerland. Many countries around the world are grappling with the same issue. For example, in Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin—which is the country’s food bowl and supports a $75 billion agriculture industry—is under immense pressure from the effects of drought and climate change. The Australian government has implemented a series of measures to try to mitigate the effects of climate change on the Basin, including water efficiency plans and assessment of environmental flows. In addition to Australia, many countries in Africa are also struggling with the effects of climate change on water resources, including flooding, droughts, changes in the distribution of rainfall, drying-up of rivers, and the receding of bodies of water.

It is evident that Switzerland's actions serve as a model for other countries to follow to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Ultimately, the effects of climate change on water resources require a coordinated effort from all countries to address. It is evident that Switzerland's actions serve as a model for other countries to follow to mitigate the effects of climate change. Moreover, Switzerland has several key lessons that can be applied to other countries when it comes to climate change and water resources.


Switzerland’s Key Lessons

First, it is important to have clear and stringent legislation in place to protect water resources. Second, the promotion of alternative farming methods, such as vertical farming, can help to reduce the water footprint of crops. And finally, the transition to renewable energy sources is crucial to achieve carbon-neutrality.

As a country with a long history of environmental stewardship, Switzerland is setting the standard for other countries to follow. According to Eawag, “We have long been aware of the direct impact of climate change on natural freshwater systems [in Switzerland]. ... This does not just threaten the habitats of aquatic life and their biodiversity. Around 1.5 billion people [worldwide] who rely on the water resources from … mountainous regions will also suffer if the quality and quantity of the drinking water deteriorate."

While the effects of climate change are global in scope, countries must act at the domestic level to mitigate the negative impacts of this phenomenon. It is incumbent upon Alpine nations to take action to protect their water resources through a combination of legislation, technology, and education. In doing so, these nations will not only be protecting their own resources but serving as an inspiration for other countries to follow suit.

 

*Angelica Sirotin is a social impact venture entrepreneur, founder, and CEO of Sirotin Ventures. She is a member of the WEF AI Youth Council, B20 Indonesia 2022 Digitalization Taskforce, and has been selected as a SwissCognitive Global AI Ambassador 2022.


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