File this one under too much of a good thing: Like in Sweden and Norway where the ardent recycling habits of its citizens have lead to fuel deficits at waste-to-energy power plants, a penchant for water thrift demonstrated by Germans has revealed a damaging downside of an otherwise commendable act. 

In North America, particularly in drought-ravaged California, the very notion of a household not using enough water is perplexing, paradoxical, counterintuitive. It just doesn’t make sense. After all, haven’t we been trained to conserve the wet stuff however and whenever possible?

Across the Atlantic in Germany, however, the longstanding tradition — a source of pride and a bona fide national pastime — of practicing extreme prudence around the tap has led to the rise of a movement in which residents are encouraged to keep the water flowing. It's verrückt but true. Germans are abstemious (meaning they are incredibly self-disciplined) when it comes to their water usage.

Composed primarily of city leaders, waste management specialists and utility honchos, Germany’s pro-water-usage bloc isn't exactly encouraging citizens to waste water. However, they do convey the message that it’s perfectly acceptable to indulge in more than two showers of reasonable length per week and flush the toilet on a more frequent basis. Basically, the world isn’t going to end if you don’t share the bathwater with family members.

The Wall Street Journal reports the impetuous for all of this is largely infrastructure-related. Like in San Francisco where the rise of low-flush toilets has yielded odoriferous results, the dearth of water flowing underneath German cities has resulted in an abundance of slow-moving sewage sitting stagnant in too-big pipes. And with this comes an eye-watering stench and sewage gas so potent that it corrodes cement. Berlin’s water utility, Berliner Wasserbetriebe, has even deployed a dedicated “Odor and Corrosion Task Force” with the glamorous job of curtailing sewage stink through various measures including installing deodorant pads in sewers.

As the Journal details, Germany’s uber-vigilance when it comes to water conservation doesn’t come strictly from environmental concern although this is a primary motivator for many tap-wary denizens. Prudence and good, old-fashioned guilt also factor into this often obsessive “expression of personal virtue and social responsibility.”

Siegfried Gendries, marketing manager for Ruhr Valley utility Rheinisch-Westfälische Wasserwerksgesellschaft, explains: “People have a bad conscience when they use a lot of water. We want to give them the chance to do something for their good conscience."

Gendries and other water utility heads have launched campaigns urging customers to ease up on their household conservation techniques and think more about the big picture by considering their "virtual water" footprints — that is, the water they consume indirectly through buying, for example, coffee or a new pair of designer jeans.

The Journal elaborates on frugality-driven conservation:

To be sure, one reason Germans save water is to save money. And because the majority of utilities' costs are fixed, declining use has led to an increase in the per-liter price of water, causing consumers to become even more use-conscious. A German household consuming 21,000 gallons a year—roughly enough water for two people — paid an average of about $260 in 2013 for the privilege, compared with $235 in 2005, at the current exchange rate.
Utility costs aside, environmentalists argue that utility customers shouldn't be prodded to give up their knack for conserving water. Rather, it should be the responsibility of the utilities themselves to upgrade aging sewer systems so that they can operate in an effective manner with less water. Attitudes have changed toward water usage and, in turn, so should infrastructure.

“It's actually the duty of the civic authorities to design their technical systems in the most environmentally friendly way possible and with as little water as possible,” Stephan Gunkel of Friends of the Earth tells Deutsch Well in a 2009 article addressing the unique water conservation quandary of a nation where supply more than meets demand. “If that isn't the case, then they should introduce step-by-step changes to their systems.”

Utilities believe that such overhauls, particularly projects that involve replacing existing sewer systems in older cities, are financially and logistically unfeasible. "If you were to remove these pipes and make them smaller now, it would mean an investment of billions of euros, accompanied by higher energy consumption, additional burdens and destruction of the environment," explains Heinz Brandenburg, Cologne's head of sewer maintenance, to Deutsch Well. "Changing the existing systems wouldn't really make much sense."

And so, the current solution would appear to be taming the stink while applauding water-conserving residents for a job well done — but, please, just don't take it any further.

Lots more over at the Journal including a look at the H2O-conserving habits of a few Germans that by all means seem reasonable, smart and not at all fanatical — things that we should all be doing. But in the picture painted by the Journal, an entire nation collectively doing the right thing can sometimes have less-than-an-ideal side effects. For additional perspectives, Der Spiegel has also reported on the topic as has Hanna Gersmann in an insightful editorial for The Guardian.

Any thoughts? 

Via [WSJ] via [TreeHugger]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.