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on the environment


SOER Country

Freshwater (Switzerland)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Rivers, streams and lakes are vital resources for humans, wildlife and plants. They shape landscapes, transport water and sediment, help to maintain the natural balance of ecosystems and are used for many purposes. However, their capacity to fulfill these functions is impaired by man-made structures, hydropower generation and high-intensity industrial or agricultural use.

Groundwater provides over 80 % of the Swiss drinking water and is therefore given a high protection priority. Groundwater is also a central element in the natural hydrological cycle, feeding the base flow of rivers and sustaining valuable habitats such as spring biotopes, swamps and wetlands.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

The quality of Swiss surface water has improved significantly, with decreasing nitrate and phosphorus levels as a result of the excellent wastewater treatment infrastructure coupled with the ban on phosphorus in detergents. The discharge of micropollutants via wastewater treatment plants and diffuse sources, however, remains a challenge for water protection.

The habitat quality of a surface water body depends not only on the quality of the water, but also on its morphology, the water flow and bed-load regime and the water temperature. Approximately 10 000 km of the total Swiss water network of 65 000 km have been considerably altered by construction work; around 4000 km are culverted (passing surface water through a pipe or a closed conduit) (FOEN, 2009). In many rivers and streams, the volume of residual water remaining after abstraction is not sufficient to maintain their diverse functions. In Alpine rivers downstream from hydropower plants, hydropeaking (surge – low-flow dynamics) impairs the natural habitats. The bed-load regime is altered through stream control measures, gravel extraction and hydropower facilities. This results in more uniform and structurally impoverished habitats with declining biodiversity. The beds of water are sealed, particularly near weirs at run-of-river hydropower facilities, impairing drainage and diminishing groundwater recharge.

The average temperature in the Rhine at Basel, as an example in the Central Plateau area of Switzerland, has risen by more than 2°C in the last fifty years. Climate change and discharges of heated water (e. g. from cooling plants, or from showers and washing machines via wastewater treatment plants) are contributing to this development. Many aquatic organisms respond sensitively to this rise in temperature.

According to the results of the National Groundwater Monitoring, the overall quality of groundwater is good. Problems occur in areas of intensive agricultural use and in built-up areas, where elevated nitrate concentrations, plant protection products (PPPs) as well as pharmaceutical products and traces of chemicals from industrial processes are found. Based on current knowledge, human health is not at risk from the observed pollutant levels. However, the occurrence of pollutants, especially where these exceed the national limits, is a warning sign which needs to be taken seriously.

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Regarding water quantity, Switzerland, as part of the Alpine region, serves as a ’water tower‘ with abundant water resources, of which only a small fraction is abstracted. This is reflected in a low water exploitation index.

In terms of water quality, in Switzerland to date, annually 1.5 billion m3 of wastewater are generated, of which 1.45 billion m3 are municipal wastewater; the rest is industrial and hospital effluent.

Adverse impacts of diffuse pollution to surface and groundwater need to be considered both in urban and built-up areas (wet-weather discharges or pollutant inputs from heavily used traffic routes) and in agricultural areas (discharge of fertilisers and pesticides via seepage, leaching, erosion, run-off or deposition).


The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Swiss water policy has been developing and promoting the concept of ’integral water management‘, with the catchment area as management and planning space. The ’Guiding Principles for Swiss Water Courses‘ outline specific measures to be adopted by cantonal, regional and local authorities and provide showcase examples of good practice. The emphasis is on three development goals: adequate space, adequate water flows and adequate water quality (SAEFL/FOWG, 2003).

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

Water protection in Switzerland has a firm legal basis in the Water Protection Act and the Ordinance adopted under it. The Water Protection Ordinance defines the ecological targets and water quality requirements (including certain micropollutants) for surface and groundwaters, which must be met at all times. Minimum residual flow levels for all water abstraction points are defined; already existing water abstraction points must be rehabilitated in order to meet intermediate targets by 2012.

As a result of a recent legislative initiative, the Water Protection Act and Ordinance are currently being amended, focusing especially on the following issues:

  • assured financial support for surface water restoration measures, with the target of returning 4000 km of surface waters to a more natural state within 80 years;

  • mandatory strategic planning of restoration activities;

  • rehabilitation of hydropower plants to ensure linear continuity for fish migration;

  • engineering measures to reduce the dynamics of hydropeaking (e.g. retention basins);

  • measures to reactivate the bed load balance.


To mitigate point-source pollution by micropollutants, the largest wastewater treatment plants in areas concerned are to be upgraded with an additional treatment step. The corresponding legal basis is currently being established. Further research is under way to improve the understanding of diffuse pollution from micropollutants as a basis for developing appropriate mitigation strategies.

Flood risk prevention includes preliminary flood risk assessment and hazard mapping by 2011, along with the promotion of a modern flood protection policy with the following aims: ensuring adequate protection of areas vital to human livelihoods and economic development, limiting economic damage by means of a comprehensive prevention strategy, improving the handling of uncertainties and residual or remaining risks, and finally understanding rivers and streams as essential linking elements in landscapes and nature (BWG, 2001).

Description of the implementation of the Water Framework Directive

As a non-EU member, Switzerland is not bound to implement the WFD. However the Swiss legal system sets comparable targets regarding water protection and management. In contrast to the WFD, which is based on planning periods with specified targets, the Swiss legislation formulates binding requirements including a set of national limits which must be met at all times.

As a member of the international commissions of the Rhine River Basin and of the Lakes of Constance, Geneva, Lugano and the Lago Maggiore, Switzerland collaborates with its neighboring states to achieve water protection goals and to implement endorsed programmes, and thus indirectly adopts certain principles of the WFD.



  • FOWG 2001: Federal Office for Water and Geology (FOWG), Flood Control at Rivers and Streams, Guidelines, Bern, 2001.
  • SAEFL/FOWG 2003: Swiss Agency for the Environment, Forests and Landscape (SAEFL) and the Federal Office for Water and Geology (FOWG), Guiding Principles for Swiss watercourses. Promoting sustainable watercourse management. 12 pp., Bern, 2003.
  • FOEN 2009: Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), Strukturen der Fliessgewässer in der Schweiz. Zustand von Sohle, Ufer und Umland (Ökomorphologie); Ergebnisse der ökomorphologischen Kartierung. Stand: April 2009. Reihe Umwelt-Zustand 09/26, Bern, 2009.

The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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