In Berlin, toilets flush directly into the river (but it’s not just Berlin)

Raw sewage flows into the waterways in Berlin and many other cities on a regular basis. Some are doing more about it than others.

When you flush your toilet in Berlin, it goes directly into the Spree river that runs through the city, or into one of its several canals. This happens on 30 to 40 days each year, sometimes as many as 60, whenever there’s a moderate-to-strong rainstorm. This post is a documentation of just a few of the 120-odd outlets where the untreated sewage enters the waterways. Many cities in the U.S. and elsewhere have the same problem, but many also have projects for combatting it costing into the billions. Scores of agencies and organizations across the U.S. have hundreds of K-12 lesson plans and learning activites on the topic available for free download, To inform the public about the outlets and whether they’re overflowing, water authorities have online interactive maps with real-time updates. Some have signs posted at each outlet in multiple languages, often with an ID number and phone number to call in case of malfunction. None of this outreach material exists in Germany.

Regularly-occurring mass fish die-offs are just one reason the E.U. is taking legal action against Germany over its water quality

The releases of untreated sewage are known as combined sewer overflows (CSOs), and the reason they’re important is that the pollution from them persists over the whole year. The yearly overflows on Berlin’s largest canal alone contain enough sewage to fill its entire length twice over. The pollution is severe enough that not one of Berlin’s rivers or lakes meets the European Union’s legal standards for water quality and ecological condition, which they were all required to meet by 2015. Twenty-one years after the law’s enactment in 2000, the city still doesn’t have a compliance plan or an estimate of when, if ever, it will meet the requirements. As a result, the E.U. has taken the first steps towards lawsuits that can result in fines of hundreds of thousands of euros per day.

Visualizing sewage benefits everyone

Cleveland is one of numerous cities (Philadelphia, Seattle, New York for starters) that shows you where the CSOs are and if they’re overflowing right now…

…clicking on each CSO brings up detailed data…

… and a photo of the outlet.


Seattle posts signs at its CSO outfalls in five languages…

What Berlin has is a map in pdf format but it’s not publicly available, the numbers have nothing to do with the numbers painted on the actual outlets, it has no accompanying information, and I’ve only seen it once on some anonymous person’s personal website and not at any official source.

Berlin is not the only city with a CSO problem. Most cities that were of any substantial size in the early 1900s have it too, because that’s when their sewer lines were built, using a now-antiquated system. What makes Berlin stand out is how little the city is doing to solve it compared to other places. Not just compared to progressive places like Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but even compared to many just-average American cities.

So far, my attempts to find out how this is possible in the capital of the world’s fourth largest economy, a presumed leader in technology, and a self-proclaimed world capital of environmental consciousness where the Green Party has been in the city council for 40 years have not been successful. There is no substantial public conversation on CSOs in Berlin. (The nearest thing is a plan to block off an arm of the Spree and build a swimming pool in it, which in a remarkable stroke of magical thinking is being billed as a water quality improvement project – a wildly popular environmental Theranos except the bubble hasn’t burst yet.) In New York, which is just three times the size of Berlin and has never made any claims to environmental consciousness, a coalition of 70 organizations is dedicated wholly to CSOs – Stormwater Infrastructure Matters, or SWIM (it pre-dates Black Lives Matter by a decade or so).

The bill for unbridled growth has arrived and it’s not cheap

Many cities have expensive programs to deal with the situation and fixed targets to reduce the overflows. New York is spending $6 billion, Honolulu $5bn, St. Louis $4.7bn, Cincinnati $3.3bn, Cleveland $3bn, Washington $2.6bn, Kansas City $2.4bn, Portland $1.4bn, Atlanta $1.1bn. Most of these cities are considerably smaller than Berlin,

The city is undertaking some measures and spending money on the problem but there is no specific plan with targets and budgets for reducing the CSOs. On the surface there is some use of the green infrastructure that has been the industry standard elsewhere for twenty years now and is much cheaper and better for the climate than the older types of “grey” infrastructure. But when you look closer you find out it’s only used in programs that are purely voluntary for property owners, and there’s no follow-up to find out how much these efforts actually reduced the sewage overflows, which is the whole point of having them in the first place. Politicians are not well informed on the issue¬† – at a recent hearing one councilmember who is very active on the environment asked if we could just tear out the whole sewer system and replace it. No city ever has or will¬† do this, because it would cost something on the order of $50 billion (or 100, or 200) and take 50 years. A pre-plan that addresses stormwater management, due to be completed in a year or more, will lay the groundwork for a later plan for the actual reductions . Portland began its program in 1990 and by 2011 had reduced the overflow volumes by 96%.

The antiquated sewer system is called a combined system because it collects both stormwater from the streets and wastewater into one combined pipe system that leads to the treatment plants. The catch is that the system has overflow pipes that serve as safety valves when rainfall overloads the system. The overflow pipes carry the combined rainwater and raw sewage – from bathrooms, kitchens, industry – directly into the rivers and lakes. The consequences for water quality and the health of rivers, lakes and oceans are devastating.

Farmers could see where this was going

Combined sewers were accepted 100 years ago, before there was much concern over water pollution. Further, the overflows are more common now than they were originally. One reason is that the rate of sealing over the land’s surface with pavement has grown continually for a century and shows few signs of slowing down. As a result, whenever it rains, more rainwater enters the system than it used to, instead of soaking into the soil.

Farmers could see this coming, if this highly sophisticated description of the situation from 1956 is anything to go by. It was written not by an ecologist or hydrological engineer but by a farmer, artist and historian named Eric Sloane, whose work painstakingly documented rural traditions and landscapes.

The other reason for the increased CSOs is that the climate crisis is increasing the intensity of rainstorms. This is why doing something about CSOs is an essential part of climate adaptation and resilience.

About 100 years ago, cities began building completely separate sewer systems for wastewater and stormwater. Such systems don’t have the problems with raw sewage because one set of pipes carries the wastewater to the treatment plants and another carries the stormwater, untreated, to the waterways. They are not off the hook for water pollution though, because stormwater carries pollution from streets, rooftops, lawns and agriculture. So nationally there is a crisis with polluted stormwater runoff on top of the acute crisis with CSOs in certain locations.

Communities in the lower 49 with combined systems (EPA)

In the U.S., twelve percent of the population lives in the roughly 700 localities that have combined sewers. The E.P.A. has sued over 200 of them for water quality violations since the mid-1990s, resulting in the aforementioned expensive imporvements to the systems. The German government does not sue cities in this way. The E.U. sues whole countries, as it is doing with Germany, but it does not sue individual cities. Presumably the federal government would pressure the cities to address the issues and stave off the lawsuits but the experts I’ve asked don’t have any concrete evidence that this happens.

What a sewage outfall actually looks like

What follows is a sample of Berlin’s CSO outlets. They may look unassuming but they are responsible for annual blooms of toxin-producing algae that each year kill a few dogs and make children seriously ill when they fail to follow the city’s spontaneous, short-term swimming bans. The CSOs also cause fish die-offs where thousands of dead fish float to the surface.

Digression. Next to #45 is just about the best thing in Berlin. It’s a vending machine for little toys which looks like it weighs 500 pounds and has been there since the 70s, hidden on a canal bank just off a heavily-trafficked street in a desolate ugly business district with no life, no shops, and no people. Incredibly, it works. It sort of feels like this vending machine is the only thing in the whole city that is in good working order. I bought a super ball (20 cents) and a tiny doll (50 cents) with a suction cup on the back.




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