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The planned coal phase-out in eastern Germany could threaten water supply in and around the country’s capital, as significantly less groundwater will be pumped into the river Spree with the end of lignite mining in the area, a report by the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA) found. After the coal phase-out in Lusatia, the river Spree – which flows in the states of Berlin, Saxony and Brandenburg – could have up to 75 percent less water in certain areas during dry summer months, with consequences for lakes, canals and drinking water supply, according to the report. Since the beginning of lignite mining in the 19th century, around 58 billion cubic metres of groundwater – more than the volume of Lake Constance – have been pumped to allow mining, and fed into the Spree, said UBA. A good half of the water that the Spree carries today near Cottbus comes from pumped groundwater. The coal phase-out in the country is scheduled for 2038, but the government aims to push it forward to 2030 if possible. The report’s authors say it will fundamentally change the water balance in the entire region and, if water demand increases or remains the same, there is a threat of increasingly frequent and prolonged water shortages in the region. However, this is no reason to cancel the phase-out, the UBA head Dirk Messner said. “Coal mining has been harmful to the environment for decades. I am absolutely in favour of continuing to target the phase-out for Lusatia for 2030, otherwise we will hardly be able to achieve our climate targets.”

The authors recommend that households, industry and agriculture save water, and that the states find ways to pump water into the river from other regions through new pipe systems. Additionally, water storage should be expanded by upgrading existing reservoirs and creating new ones in mining lakes, for example. A short-term, emergency solution could be the continued operation of the mining pumps, but this would come with ecological consequences and is an expensive solution to prevent water shortage problems compared to other measures, the authors say. UBA also recommends that Saxony, Brandenburg and Berlin develop a cross-state master plan for water management in the region. The capital’s water supplier, Berliner Wasserbetriebe, and the state’s senate are already working on corresponding concepts.