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Why Copenhagen Has Such Great Water

Why Copenhagen Has Such Great Water CityLab


Kim Dorff, a native Dane who has lived in Copenhagen for 18 years, frequents harbor baths during the summer. He appreciates the convenience of swimming lanes and onsite showers (saunas even await cold-weather swimmers on the shore at Islands Brygge). He says he has never been fearful of the water quality, nor has he known anyone to have reservations about diving in.

The harbor baths are just one manifestation of a culture of prioritizing water that gained traction in the early Seventies, after Denmark’s Environment Ministry was founded. This mindset has taken the city from pumping sewage into its harbor (when it was known to come up to street level) to unwavering trust in the quality of public water and an aversion to wasting it. 

It could not be more different from Flint, Michigan, which recently declared a state of emergency due to unsafe levels of lead and trihalomethanes. Across the U.S., variables such as sourcing, pollution, differing treatment methods, and aging infrastructure can cause huge gaps in water quality. These are non-issues for Copenhagen residents, regardless of their socioeconomic status or neighborhood.

Copenhagen is virtually immune to events like those in Flint, despite the city’s age (its first incarnation was founded in the 10thcentury), history of pollution, and proximity to industrial and agricultural sites, as well as shipping activity. The primary reason is that tap water is sourced solely from Denmark’s heavily protected groundwater reserves—including some beneath the capital itself—rather than surface water. Public drinking water is now so clean that it’s better than bottled water, says Mayor of Technical and Environmental Affairs Morten Kabell—and that’s without chlorine or other chemical processing (only aeration, pH adjustment, and filtration).

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Tap water is sources from protected groundwater, not surface water?

That's the main reason?! 

It sounds so straightforward that it makes me wonder why more cities don't do it!

Actually, there's more to it than that. Everyone participates in water conservation. 

Kabell says buy-in from Copenhageners is a huge part of why the city is in such a good place. The benefit to residents is clear: a dependable supply of pure water. In return, they willingly do their part, which means conservation—and taxation. The average Copenhagener only uses about 26 gallons a day, compared to the 80 to 100 gallons used by the average U.S. citizen. Water taxes provide a strong incentive to cut back; according to Global Water Intelligence, a UK analysis group, Danes pay the highest water rates in Europe, at 6.33 Euros per 1,000 liters or 264 gallons (compare France at 3.35 Euros and Sweden at 2.73). 

Public awareness has played a role too. “We’ve said, ‘If we are to have clean water in the future, then we need to be sustainable in our water usage. We need to use less water,’” Kabell explains. “Copenhageners have sort of accepted that task. For them, it makes good sense.” 

Danes who grew up in the Seventies through Nineties, like Dorff and Kabell, remember being subject to school-focused campaigns around environmental responsibility and conservation. Dorff recalls a giant water meter once being placed in the middle of town to encourage responsible usage. Denmark mandated labels rating the energy efficiency of household appliances in 1990, and now it sets minimum standards for “ecodesign”; more efficient appliances have helped Danes reduce the water as well as energy consumed by their dishwashers and washing machines. 

Water quality and conservation have become big business, with both the public and private sectors developing cutting-edge technologies like the harbor alert system, as well as the state-of-the-art Danish Groundwater Mapping Program.

Because the water is so good, many Copenhageners enjoy swimming in the harbor. 

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