[Skip to Content]

A land enriched by water

In Denmark, water utilities compete to supply the tastiest product, and restaurants serve it with pride. Clean water enhances life quality – and most people in Denmark take it for granted.

By Markus Bernsen. Focus Denmark no. 1 2012.

havnebad In January, a harbor bath for winter bathers opened in the southern section
of Copenhagen Harbour.

Denmark has some of the cleanest water in the world. Quite uniquely, all its water is pumped up from deep below ground, and passed through a sand filter before it comes out of the taps.

Other European countries obtain much of their drinking water from the surfaces of lakes and rivers, but in Denmark there are such large quantities of clean water underground that it covers the entire country’s water needs including domestic consumption and use, agriculture and industry.

“Water is essential to people’s everyday lives,” says Susanne Knøchel, professor at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen and president of the Council for Better Hygiene.

“It is the most abundant and important life-supporting resource we have. The quality of our drinking water is not only vital to health and hygiene, but also to the quality of our agricultural products and food. For both the individual and society as a whole, access to clean water is extremely important.”

Taken for granted

Clean tap water is so much taken for granted by the Danes that they occasionally get into trouble when they are abroad. They drink water from the tap or rinse vegetables in it because they are used to doing this at home. Conversely, some Danish hotels have signs in their bathrooms saying: “It is safe to drink water from the tap.”

When a Danish water utility conducted a survey to find out how much their customers knew about the water supply, the vast majority answered that they took clean drinking water for granted. Few knew where it came from, or how it got to their homes. Clean drinking water was such a natural part of their daily lives that they had stopped thinking about it. And that was the best result the survey could have produced, thinks Marianne Bjerrum Lai, head of department at the water and wastewater company VCS Denmark.

”The survey shows that our customers have tremendous faith in us, and trust us to know what we are doing, although they don’t actively think about it. In Denmark, we probably have a special culture around drinking water. There is a faith in the public sector taking responsibility and having things under control. When people are asked, it emerges that they are actually proud of the clean drinking water, and of the fact that Denmark advises many countries on water technology.”

In recent years, the water utilities have started competing over which one has the best water. Since it is neither filtered nor has substances like chlorine added to it, the taste changes depending on where in the country you are. Drinking water in the capital city of Copenhagen in the east tastes quite different to water from the west coast.

Each year the water utilities hold a competition – the Danish Water Grand Prix – where professional wine tasters choose the tastiest water. The utilities are making a map that divides Denmark into districts according to the taste of the water.

Denmark’s groundwater is a special characteristic of the country, which restaurants have also spotted in recent years. It is not only the Prime Minister who does it: chef Rasmus Kofoed, who won gold at the Bocuse d’Or contest in 2011, serves tap water with the food at his biodynamic restaurant Geranium in Copenhagen.

A spoiled country

The Danes cannot themselves take all the credit for the clean water. Some of it is due to geographical and geological coincidences, explains Susanne Knøchel of the University of Copenhagen:

“Compared to many other countries, Denmark still has easy access to good quality groundwater, as well as regular and substantial rainfall. Altogether we have been very spoiled in a global context, even in comparison with many of our neighbouring countries in Europe.”

First and foremost, clean water has significance for the health of the population. The cleaner the drinking water and the better the sewerage system, the more life quality is improved for a country’s inhabitants. Diseases and epidemics spread through the drinking water supply, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified water as the most important area for any developing country wishing to improve the health of its people and combat poverty.

But clean water determines more than the health of the nation. Denmark’s food exports are sustained by the groundwater, explains Susanne Knøchel:

“We are an agricultural country by tradition, and hygiene has always been important to our exports. Danish companies are more attentive to hygiene than many other countries. This is very much to do with our clean water.”

Water is also an important factor in how Danes spend their spare time. Denmark has one of Europe’s longest coastlines. Totalling 7,300 kilometres, it is twice as long as the coastline of France. In Denmark one is never more than 52 kilometres from the sea, and often a lot closer: the vast majority of the population live in cities on coasts or fjords, such as Copenhagen, Aarhus, Odense or Aalborg.

Danes have a deep association with water, thinks Rune Hansen, partner in architectural firm AI, whose specialities include work with water in cities.

“You automatically acquire a special relationship with water when you live on such a ’mud bank’ as we do. There is water all around us, and it means something. It is for example very unusual that a whole country’s population has swimming lessons at school, and that almost all the inhabitants of a country can swim. That has the effect of creating a special consciousness around water in Denmark. And look at the country’s art – it is almost impossible to find a landscape in Danish art history without water in it.”

Benefits and risks

Especially in the capital, architects have exploited the social importance of water in recent years. In the centre of Copenhagen the municipality has constructed harbour baths in several locations, so city dwellers can leap into clean water right in the middle of a metropolis of 1.5 million inhabitants. In January, a harbour bath for winter bathers opened in the southern section of the harbour. 11,000 Danish citizens are currently members of a winter bathing club, and the waiting list for the three swimming facilities with sauna is oversubscribed.

”Water is also important to life quality in the major cities,” says Marina Bergen Jensen, who is Professor of Design and Construction of Urban Landscapes Adapted to Climate Change at the University of Copenhagen.

”Water helps to turn a city into an aesthetic and recreational space. It is not only nice to look at; there are also many corollary effects of having clean water in a city. It strengthens biodiversity and nurtures plants and birds, and helps give life to a city.”

So it is important to a city like Copenhagen to ensure supplies of clean water. All countries have a threshold for how much water they can use. Denmark also risks being affected by water scarcity – it is just expected to happen later than in most other countries.

Each Each year the water utilities hold a competition - the Danish Water Grand Prix -
where wine tasters choose the tastiest water.

A challenge faced at the present time is that climate change is leading to more frequent, violent rainfall which causes flooding in the cities and can pollute the groundwater. A major upgrading of the sewer system in Copenhagen is planned, and research is being conducted into ways of improving water re-use, so that wastewater from the cities can for example be used in agriculture. It is precisely because the population is so privileged in regards to water, that they will be more severely affected if the supplies of clean water begin to fail.

”Water is as a general principle something positive and pleasant to be close to, but it can quickly change into something negative,” says Marina Bergen Jensen from the University of Copenhagen. ”If waste is dumped into the waterways, it is twice as bad as if it were dumped in the street. Water is beautiful and life-giving when we know it is clean, but if water becomes polluted we see it as the exact opposite.”