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The water and wastewater supply is confronted with constantly changing challenges. In order to better understand the current situation, it is worth taking a look back at the development of an infrastructure that is so good today that one tends all too quickly to forget its value.

The development of society and culture is closely linked to the way it deals with water. A good water supply improves the health of the population, is the basis of economic activities and frees up time resources to take advantage of educational opportunities and work.

The systematic water supply in Switzerland reached its first peak in Roman cities. Subsequently, until well into modern times, there were hardly any household connections for water. The majority of the population obtained drinking, washing and cooking water from wells, which severely slowed down many social developments. It was not until the last third of the 19th century that the larger Swiss cities began to establish central water supplies (Bern and Zurich 1868, Lucerne 1873). Initially, the main reason for the modernization was the fire protection of the densely built cities.

Historical Overview:

  • Roman age: first systematic water supply
  • Until modern times: drinking water out of wells
  • End of 19th century: start of a centralised water supply
  • 20th century: construction of washrooms in households, hygienic revolution
  • Mid-20th century: 'Generationenwerk Abwasserreinigung'
  • Until today: improved water protection
  • Future challenges: micropollutants and climate change

However, the application of the new infrastructure was too demanding for the authorities. Due to inadequate water treatment, the new distribution system led to an increase in widespread cholera and typhoid epidemics. In Zurich, for example, 1,600 people contracted typhoid fever in 1884 (with a population of around 100,000).

At the turn of the century, when water was discovered as a path of infection for cholera (1883) and typhoid fever (1906) and it was recognised that a poorly maintained tap water system spread pathogens, the health and hygiene of the population became the driving force behind innovation in modernising tap water supply.

Lucerne, 1874: Construction of the first water reservoir to supply households.

Lucerne, 1874: Construction of the first water reservoir to supply households.

Water usage and origin. WASSER FÜR WASSER (WfW).

Due to the hygienically inadequate supply of drinking water, cholera and typhoid epidemics occurred in Switzerland until the 20th century.

The integration of wet rooms into households took place step by step. Initially, the plots were connected to the water network, then pipes were routed to the kitchens. Basic sanitation, including toilets, bathrooms and showers, did not spread until the turn of the 20th century, and in rural areas often only after the Second World War. This 'hygienic revolution' brought enormous added value for society.

The organisational structure of the water supply in particular led to political discussions. After problems such as unequal distribution and poor quality became comparatively more apparent among private utilities, the large cities gradually opted for public or public-private schemes.

Increased access to water in the homes and the expansion of individual production sectors caused water consumption to rise sharply until the 1970s. The outsourcing of individual sectors (e.g. the textile industry) and technical innovations (e.g. more efficient washing machines) led to a decrease in water consumption despite the population increase.

In the last third of the 20th century, the entire population was supplied with safe drinking water through continuously improving infrastructure and accessing lake water, so that cholera and typhoid fever disappeared from Switzerland. The focus shifted towards wastewater management and the protection of water bodies and groundwater.

Population Growth Lucerne. WASSER FÜR WASSER (WfW)

Groundwater Protection & Wastewater Management

Increasing industrialisation (polluted wastewater), new applications in agriculture (fertilizers, pesticides) or new products for the care of bodies and clothes (detergents) polluted Switzerland's waters with trace substances. Particularly in cities, open cesspools sometimes occurred. At the end of the 19th century, the government enacted a law to protect fish stocks. This was on the initiative of the fishing associations.

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Open cesspool in Basel, 1865

Further measures initially had little effect. The contamination of surface waters by trace substances had a negative impact on groundwater, one of Switzerland's most important water resources. It was only gradually that groundwater protection zones (1971) or binding numerical maximum values for the discharge of waste water and fertilisers into nature and water bodies (1998) became enshrined in law.

Groundwater is one of the most important, but also a very sensitive water resource in Switzerland. Due to very slow water flows, pollution can persist for decades.

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Bathing prohibited!

Until the 1980s, foaming streams, rivers and lakes were part of everyday life in Switzerland due to the high level of pollution. Bathing in open waters was forbidden or only permitted at one's own risk. This was especially the case as wastewater was discharged into surface waters without any treatment. As the population grew, this situation became intolerable and measures were introduced step by step.

The 'Generationenwerk Abwasserreinigung' was launched in the middle of the 20th century: the systematic construction of wastewater treatment plants (ARA), co-financed by the federal government. Between 1971 and 1990 alone, the percentage of households connected to ARA increased from 30% to 90%. All these measures had an effect: bathing in surface waters is possible throughout Switzerland, and the input of trace substances has been sustainably reduced.

Wastewater Access Switzerland

Development of wastewater access in Switzerland.

Although the situation has improved considerably in recent decades, further measures are needed to protect water bodies. These include, in particular, improved ARA for filtering new trace substances and a reduction in pesticide and nitrate inputs.

Nevertheless, there is a need for action in two major areas in particular. Firstly, action should be taken against micropollutants from densely populated areas. To this end, the ARAs are currently being upgraded to filter out most trace substances before they are released into nature. Secondly, further reductions in pesticide and fertilizer residues discharged into rivers and streams are needed.

Major efforts are needed to prevent small and medium-sized streams and rivers from being heavily polluted. For this reason, a federal action plan for risk reduction and sustainable use of plant protection products has been drawn up. This action plan sets out various measures, but is criticised, among others, by the Association of Water Suppliers and the Swiss Water Protection Association for setting too low a target. Other actors are therefore called upon to protect groundwater and thus drinking water. This is because groundwater is an extremely sensitive drinking water resource that only slowly recovers from possible pollution.


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