Munich: Promoting organic agriculture to avoid treating water

, by  MEIFFREN Isabelle, POINTEREAU Philippe, Solagro

Since 1991, the city of Munich has encouraged farmers whose lands are in the catchment area that provides water for the city, to convert to organic agriculture. The inhabitants of Munich now have pure, untreated tap water.

How has Munich, a city of 1.3 million inhabitants managed to avoid any chemical treatment of its tap water? Part of the answer lies in the decision taken at the end of the last century. At that time, the water supply system of the town from the Mangfall Valley was introduced. Although 40 kilometres from the town, this valley that provides over 80% of the city’s tap water supply, was chosen because of its high annual rainfall, the filtering ability of the soil, and particularly because of its altitude that allows the water to flow using the law of gravity. The municipality also bought up agricultural lands in the Mangfall catchment area. Most of this land is wooded, and the idea – considered very avant-garde at the time – was to create a natural filter and purifying system for water, that belonged to the town and covered 1,600 hectares. None of this was left to pure chance, and the management of the woods is carried out for the municipal water services by the municipal department for woods and forests.

This strategy has paid off, as the 1,200 microbiological analyses and 200 monthly chemical tests prove, the 110 million cubic litres of water used every year by the inhabitants of Munich and its twenty neighbouring communes have tap water of a quality similar to that of mineral water.

In the early 1990s, the water services (which were privatised in 1998) were worried to note that there was a slow but constant increase over a 30-year period in the pollutants of agricultural origin. These figures were far from being worryingly high. The worst analyses showed a maximum of 15 milligrammes/litre and 0.065 microgramme of pesticides were present in 1993. This was well below the limits of the European Union directives on « nitrates » (50 mg/l) and « pesticides » (0,5 µg/l).

They did however take the alert very seriously. The possibility of buying up additional land around where the water was pumped and of planting more trees there, was rapidly ruled out as a solution, given the issues of land ownership. The town therefore decided to encourage organic farming on all the land situated upstream in the Mangfall Valley. Encourage: the word is too weak, because over the following years, the town intervened very directly at all levels in the chain, from production to marketing, and ensuring that there were sufficient sales for organic products in their own structures: nurseries, canteens etc.

The city initially set a zone of 6,000 hectares to protect the springs, of which 2,250 hectares was agricultural land that needed to be “converted”, leaving the rest covered by forests. After carrying out this zoning, the town nominated two people to follow the file and brought together organic producers’ associations (Demetter, Bioland, Naturland) in order to get the message across to the farmers. The main lesson learnt in this awareness-raising phase was the need for financial and technical support for farmers, to help them to convert. The town covered the full cost of the initial advisory work carried out by the organic producers’ associations to those farmers who were in the process of converting, as well as the costs of the annual controls. The farmers themselves had to cover the costs of joining the association of their choice. An additional sum was paid by the municipality to the farmers for “honouring their contribution to the protection of water, compensating the reduced crop returns and investments made”. This grant was originally 281 euros per hectare for the first six years, to cover the so-called start-up period. It was then reduced to 230 euros per hectare for the next 12 years, irrespective of whether the farmer owned the land or rented it. These grants did not preclude farmers from receiving State grants (approximately 152 euros per hectare per annum for a five-year period), in the framework of the agro-environmental programmes. Farmers who did not wish or who were unable to meet the criteria for livestock farming (compulsory grazing, constraints in terms of stabling) but who met all the other required criteria, received grants of 137 euros per hectare per annum as “free members” of the association. Any farmers, whose lands were adjacent, were also fully entitled to grants for at least that part of their lands that was adjacent to the protected area. The associations for organic agriculture have founded a group that is also actively supported by the town, and that processes the organic farm produce in specialised companies and helps to market the products.

In the first year (1993), 23 farmers signed a contract, covering a total surface area of 800 hectares. In 1999, this rose to 92 farmers, and 2,200 hectares, 1,600 of which were inside the conversion zone per se. This left 15 farmers who chose not to convert, but it was to be only a matter of time... This rapid conversion was encouraged by the fact that in this region, dominated by livestock farming, the lands are essentially fields used for grazing.

For the local authorities, the cost of the programme supporting organic agriculture – 0.83 million euros per year, 0.01 euro per cubic meter of tap water consumed - was not excessive, inasmuch as the town was simultaneously avoiding expensive chemical treatment of the water. By way of comparison, the cost of nitrification alone in France is calculated at 0.3 euros per cubic meter.

The fact however remains, that Bavarians do not take full advantage of the quality of their tap water, because they prefer to drink sparkling mineral water when they eat. The local authorities are encouraging the inhabitants of Munich to add gas to their own tap water. But we should also remember that the inhabitants of Munich are also big beer drinkers, and that one litre of beer requires 30 litres of excellent tap water!

Post-script (Olivier Petitjean, 2009)

The case of Munich is a good example of a governance strategy based on a “virtuous circle”, where there is a win-win situation for all the stakeholders, based on the good management of urban-rural relations. It is also worth mentioning that the Munich water services had to be redesigned under pressure from the European authorities (they became independent and “corporatised” where they had previously been a municipal department) and that they are still undergoing pressure to become fully privatised.

Another similar example that is often quoted is how the city of New York, faced by the pressures of the American Environmental Protection Agency, decided (after several years of hesitation and discussion) to implement a programme of environmental restoration in the region of the Catskill Mountains, which is where 90% of the city’s water comes from. This programme included several aspects, including buying up land, strengthening the sanitation and sewage network and treatment plants in the zone in question, as well as a series of measures aimed at encouraging the sustainable management of resources. This included introducing free advisory services. The total cost was 1.5 billion U.S. dollars, and was financed by a system of environmental bonds. The alternative would have been to build filtering and purification infrastructure at an estimated cost of between 6 and 8 billion U.S. dollars. This project caused much greater conflict between authorities and urban and rural inhabitants than appears to have been the case in Munich. It is true that the there is a significant difference in scale between the two projects. Other cities, such as Paris or Beijing have undertaken similar approaches (contributing financially to prevent agricultural pollution in their catchment area), but none on the scale of Munich or, to a lesser degree, of New York.

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