King Carl XVI Gustaf presents the Stockholm Water Prize on August 21 at a glittering ceremony in the Swedish capital, as part of World Water Week. Having successfully cleaned up its own water supply, Sweden is at the forefront of tackling the growing global water crisis.
Visitors to Stockholm are often surprised to see people fishing and swimming right in the city center. But it has not always been this way. That they are able to take a cooling dip in the summer heat or fish for salmon and crab is largely thanks to the local water authority.
HRH Crown Princess Victoria is the patron of the Stockholm Junior Water Prize and hands it out every year. Photo: Xray/www.imagebank.sweden.se
No development without water
Near the waterfront in central Stockholm is the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). SIWI is behind both World Water Week and the Stockholm Water Prize, first awarded in 1991. SIWI aims to find solutions to the global water crisis, which sees over one billion people without access to safe drinking water worldwide. Waterborne diseases are the biggest killer of children under five.
Håkan Tropp, project director at the Water Governance Facility (WGF), a joint initiative between SIWI, the United Nations Development Program and the Swedish Agency for International Development Cooperation, says: “We live in a country where water is extremely abundant, and we take for granted that we will always have water here.” The WGF is working to support small farmers’ associations on water issues in Kazakhstan, and there are similar projects in Yemen, Kenya, Jordan, and Mongolia.
“If a society is not able to provide its citizens with safe water and sanitation, it stands a very slim chance of developing,” Tropp says. “But Sweden was early in making the connection between sound water management, access to water and development.”
Tropp says few countries can match Sweden for its commitment to water issues. “Sweden has for a long time and in different ways promoted improved water resources management and improved access to water and sanitation in developing countries. I would say it is a tradition here.”
The next Dead Sea?
While Swedish expertise is being put to use abroad, another tricky problem remains to be solved in its own backyard: the Baltic Sea. Pollution and eutrophication (the release of too many nutrients into the water from sewage and fertilizer) mean that the situation for the Baltic is critical. Of the 269 “dead zones” worldwide, 10 are located in the Baltic. Few organisms can survive there, and blue-green algae blooms are a constant headache for would-be bathers during the summer.
Swimming and fishing in inner Stockholm is possible, at least in summer. Photo: Peter Melander/Maskot
Markus Meier, head of oceanographic research at the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, says: “It’s a difficult sea because its water exchange with the world’s oceans is limited. Therefore everything that is released into the Baltic Sea will stay there for a long time — about 30 years. That makes the system sensitive to pollution and eutrophication.”
By improving its own treatment of wastewater, improving agricultural methods and establishing protected wetlands, Sweden has succeeded in stopping the increase of its nutrient supply to the Baltic.
Blooming good ideas
Sweden is one of the driving forces behind the ambitious Baltic Sea Action Plan, and the government has released SEK 500 million (EUR 53.5 million) to improve the marine environment. That figure was matched by Swedish financier Björn Carlson, who has donated millions from his own pocket to the cause.
At Swedish universities, researchers are investigating various technologies that could help nurse the Baltic back to health. Among them is a plan by Professor Anders Stigebrandt at Gothenburg University to use windmills as giant whisks to pump oxygenated water down to where it is lacking. Meier says: “Oxygenating that layer would mean that the phosphorus would not come up, and excess phosphorus is the trigger for the blue-green algae blooms. If this is realistic and if it will work, we do not yet know.”
Thirty years ago, Lake Mälaren was severely polluted. Now the water is almost drinkable. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/Scanpix
A clear improvement
One area in which Sweden has been successful is cleaning up Lake Mälaren, west of Stockholm. From the 1920s until the 1970s, people were banned from swimming in the lake. Lars-Gunnar Reinius, a wastewater treatment expert at Stockholm Water, says: “We had a sewer system but no treatment plants, and the wastewater went directly into the lake. Beside the unpleasant smell, the water was also full of particles and bacteria.”
From the mid-1960s, investments in biological and chemical treatment of wastewater at treatment plants in the city led to huge improvements in water quality in the lake, which is the source of drinking water for 1.25 million Stockholmers.
Whereas for decades the water quality was so poor that fish had almost entirely disappeared from the city end of the lake, Mälaren is today a popular angling destination; the record for the biggest salmon caught in Stockholm stands at 21.8kg.
“No effluent from our treatment plants goes into Mälaren now,” Reinius says. “For a city center we have very clean water. I wouldn’t say you should drink it, but sometimes it is near drinking water quality."
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David Wiles is editor of Sweden Today magazine. Having recently moved into a flat overlooking the Baltic Sea, he hopes the giant whisk idea works.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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