Germany has been2… a water-rich country1.

Well, what now? Different statements could totally confuse one or the other.
And anyway: what does that have to do with me and you?

But let’s start from the beginning – with a few facts and figures.

Freshwater is distributed very unevenly around the world. Many people suffer from droughts or the lack of clean drinking water. It is therefore a good thing that at the 2015 UN General Assembly, the 193 countries represented agreed, among others, on SDG 6 (Sustainable Development Goal 6)5: “To ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation.” In fact, in 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized the “tight to water” as a human right6. Despite this, today 4.2 billion people still do not have access to safe sanitation facilities, and 2.2 billion people do not even have access to safe drinking water9. Various pilot projects 7,15 show that people’s quality of life increases significantly through more conscious use of water (fewer diarrheal diseases, more sustainable and at the same time more productive agriculture, etc.).

Form your own opinion:

What is the fresh water (from rivers, lakes and groundwater) used for?

Virtual water

Directly used water is something we can all imagine: it is composed of our drinking water, water we use for cooking, cleaning, washing. Is there also indirectly used water?

Yes! There is virtual water. This term or concept was introduced by British scientist John Anthony Allan in the 1990s. It describes the amount of water used to manufacture a product.

Here, a distinction is made between green, blue and gray water.8

Water footprint

The water footprint is the total amount of water used by nations, companies or consumers – that is, the water used directly and indirectly together.

The average direct water consumption of a person in Germany is 130 l / day. However, the water footprint here is 7200 l / day!11

7200 liters per day?
Unfortunately, this is not a misprint. This number results from the sheer mass of goods that we consciously or unconsciously import from abroad.18The whole thing only becomes really problematic in terms of water when we import things that require a lot of water for production, from countries that don’t have a lot of water themselves.

In Ethiopia, for example, foreign investors grow coffee, cut flowers and other crops for export. The high water consumption of this plantation system not only exacerbates the existing water conflicts with and between local smallholders and nomads, but also leads to tensions between countries: the water that is drained off the upper reaches of the Nile is lacking to people in neighboring countries such as South Sudan or Egypt.12

80% of the almonds sold worldwide come from California, USA. This poses great problems for the local people, because the almond is a water-loving stone fruit: up to 15,000 l of water are required for 1 kg. In order to be able to irrigate the huge plantations, the almond farmers drain the groundwater. But this is disappearing more and more. Consequently, the almond farmers dig deeper and deeper wells. For the local residents, this means already dried up wells and the water supply via water tanks.13

The situation is similar in Andalusia, Spain. Here, too, more and more deeper wells are being built in order to grow strawberries, blueberries and other crops. Much to the detriment of the surrounding countryside, such as the adjacent largest wetland in Spain, the Donana National Park. Already 2 years ago, the local water authority declared the groundwater reservoir to be overstressed.14

Our extreme hunger for mea – for which animal feed has to be grown – for agrofuels or biomass (power plants) is also a problem. For example, corn, sugar cane or palm oil are grown. These large plantations require a lot of water, which can lead to the sinking of groundwater or drying up of wells, rivers and lakes. For local small farmers, this represents a sometimes insurmountable problem.12

In order to increase yields, conventional agriculture around the world uses pesticides and other harmful substances that get into the groundwater. In Germany, water is cleaned at great expense (taxpayers) in wastewater treatment plants before it flows out of our pipes. Not all countries have such an efficient system. The conventional agricultural use of soil leads to a lower soil water storage, thus to a higher evaporation rate and a sealing of the surfaces, with the consequence of an increasing erosion.15

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, showing that our consumption patterns can increase water stress all around the world. However, this problem is not limited to continents that are far away, such as the usual candidates Africa or Asia. Water stress is already present in Europe.

What is the current situation with the water issue in Germany?

First, the word “water stress” should be defined:

Theoretically, we have no water stress.

Reality shows a slightly different picture:

  • In 20 years, Germany has lost the amount of water of Lake Constance.

  • The water decline in Germany is about 2.5 gigatons or cubic kilometers per year.

  • This makes Germany one of the regions with the highest water loss in the world.

  • This year, the Correktiv published a water atlas that shows how the groundwater level in Germany has changed since 1990: 6700 measuring points show that the groundwater level has fallen more than it has risen in the last 32 years.

  • Some were able to experience water shortages right on their doorstep this summer: Forest fires in Saxony and Brandenburg, parched fields and communities, that declared a state of emergency and urged their populations to save water. In the area around Grünheide in Brandenburg, water is rationed to 105 liters per day for new water customers. Does this have anything to do with the thirst of Tesla’s Gigafactory?
  • Car drivers also felt the water shortage this year: due to a historic low in the Rhine, the ships were no longer able to deliver sufficient quantities of gasoline – fuel prices rose.

What are the causes?20

The causes are complex – just think of anthropogenic climate change. However, if we focus purely on the subject of water, we can name a few problems for Germany: Rainwater can no longer get into the groundwater because the soil is unnable to absorb the water. This is due to areas that have been drained – such as bogs – conventional agriculture and forestry, or land sealed by buildings. At the same time, there is more evaporation due to heat (climate change) and the (ground) water is increasingly tapped by the citizens (including garden watering), farmers (who water excessively to save their crops) or the industry (cooling of plants, production, also the food industry and especially the meat producing industry). The industry is the largest consumer of water with 70%.

The trend is clear.

What can each individual do?

“What can I do – my influence as a single person is so small…”, who thinks like this will probably make no difference.

However, there are several approaches to dealing with the problematic changes in water. Many are more or less aimed at reducing virtual water consumption. But what is better than reducing? That’s right: not to be used in the first place – resource conservation doesn’t sound sexy at first, but it’s an important keyword.


Even if not everyone in Germany has noticed it because water stress varies greatly from region to region: the article shows that there is an urgent need for action both regionally and globally, but also that each individual can do something. Although we have no influence on the basic hydrological conditions in a place, our consumption behavior definitely influences how the valuable commodity “water” is handled and how much the situation will become increasingly critical.

Sources and further information

  1. https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/3521/publikationen/deuress18_de_bericht_web_f.pdf Page 52ff
  2. https://www.br.de/fernsehen/das-erste/sendungen/report-muenchen/videos-und-manuskripte/wassernotstand-deutschland-102.html
  3. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/1109850/umfrage/suess-und-salzwasservorkommen-auf-der-erde/
  4. https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/36584/umfrage/verteilung-der-weltweiten-suesswasserressourcen-in-2003/
  5. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ziele_f%C3%BCr_nachhaltige_Entwicklung
  6. https://www.menschenrechtsabkommen.de/recht-auf-sauberes-wasser-1122/
  7. http://www.cuvewaters.net/Home.5.0.html
    https://www.fona.de/de/info/mediathek/2014/03/sanitation-and-water-reuse-in-outapi.php citizen and state from lpg “water” page 243
  8. https://www.durstige-gueter.de/was-ist-virtuelles-wasser/
  9. https://www.unesco.de/kultur-und-natur/wasser-und-ozeane/un-weltwasserbericht-2021
  10. https://www.bpb.de/kurz-knapp/zahlen-und-fakten/globalisierung/52730/wasserverbrauch/
  11. https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/themen/wasser/wasser-bewirtschaften/wasserfussabdruck#wasserfussabdruck-ein-instrument-zur-bewertung-des-wasserverbrauchs
  12. https://www.caritas.de/neue-caritas/heftarchiv/jahrgang2017/artikel/wie-viel-wasser-steckt-in-einem-t-shirt
  13. https://www.deutschlandfunknova.de/nachrichten/wasserverbrauch-mandelanbau-wird-fuer-kalifornier-zum-problem
  14. https://www.rnd.de/panorama/spanischer-nationalpark-donana-kaempft-mit-wasserknappheit-wegen-erdbeeranbau-fuer-deutsche-NBZP63M7FZBTPPHLDX22WFURXQ.html
  15. Source: https://www.unesco.de/presse/pressematerial/un-weltwasserbericht-2018
  16. https://utopia.de/galerien/wasserfussabdruck/#7
  17. https://utopia.de/ratgeber/wasser-sparen-im-haushalt/
  18. https://utopia.de/ratgeber/bewaesserung-im-garten-das-sind-die-besten-optionen
  19. https://www.capital.de/wirtschaft-politik/deutschland-wichtigste-importgueter
  20. https://www.spar-helferchen.de/Tipps-zum-Wasser-sparen:_:12.html
  21. https://www.nationalgeographic.de/umwelt/2022/03/hydrologen-warnen-deutschland-trocknet-aus
  22. https://albert-schweitzer-stiftung.de/aktuell/1-kg-rindfleisch
  23. https://www.mein-schoener-garten.de/gartenpraxis/nutzgaerten/gartenbewaesserung-mit-ollas-38835