Bathing waters

Bathing and swimming in natural water bodies are still among the most popular recreational activities. There are many places to swim in Germany. Learning about the condition of water bodies before diving in avoids health risks.

For many people, going on holiday is equivalent to enjoying the sun, beach and sea. Everyone looking for recreation near or in the water wants the water body to be free from health hazards. To keep risks to a minimum and ensure control, officially registered bathing waters in the European Union have been subject to regular monitoring during the bathing season since the 1970s.

Legal basis and responsibilities

In 2006 the EU Bathing Water Directive of 1975 was updated and replaced by a Directive that is in line with the latest scientific research. The revised directive entered into force on 24 March 2006. Since then the federal states (Länder) have implemented the EU Bathing Water Directive in national law and issued conforming Länder regulations. In Germany there are many bathing waters registered and monitored in accordance with the EU Bathing Water Directive. In 2016, 1925 inland waters and 367 coastal waters were registered as bathing waters. The Länder are responsible for the enforcement of the legal provisions, i. e. for the designation and monitoring of EU bathing waters. They publish information on bathing water quality on the Internet.

Problems and hazards

Swimming is generally beneficial to human health but it may also involve health risks. There are different reasons for this:

  • Open bathing waters along inland water courses and lakes and along coastal waters can be polluted with pathogens. Sanitary problems are mainly caused by discharges from sewage treatment plants and combined sewers and from urban and agricultural run-off. They can lead to fever, diarrhoea and vomiting in those who come into contact with the contaminated water.
  • Another problem can be caused by nutrient inputs, in particular phosphates and nitrogen compounds, which may lead to eutrophication and facilitate a massive growth of algae (algal blooms). Cyanobacteria ("blue-green algae") in particular produce toxins and allergens. They can cause acute health problems (for example conjunctivitis, eczema) or even have chronic detrimental health effects (liver damage). Another source of pollution of bathing waters is the surface run-off after heavy rainfall. Swimming after heavy rainfall should therefore for some days be postponed until the natural purification process has set in.
  • High concentrations of waterfowl can lead to pollution of bathing waters by faeces. In many places bird populations increase dramatically because people feed them. So please help to keep our waters clean and refrain from feeding birds.
  • Water turbidity is not necessarily a sign of poor bathing water quality. By the same token, clear water can still be contaminated with bacteria.

Current situation in Germany

Germany has significantly reduced pollution from a range of sources in recent years. The quality of German bathing waters has improved steadily thanks to the modernisation of sewage treatment plants and regulations governing the input of substances from agriculture and industry. Sewage collection systems around lakes are another valuable means of improving water quality. The aim of the current programmes of measures under the EU Water Framework Directive is to achieve an even better water quality.

The latest EU bathing water quality report for the year 2016 found that approximately 2300 German bathing waters are very clean compared to the European average. Approximately 94 percent of coastal bathing waters and 97 percent of bathing waters along rivers and lakes have a good or even excellent status, which means that there is very little pollution with pathogens.

Swimming in designated bathing waters is safe, but signs indicating that bathing is prohibited or information on the water quality or status of the beach should be taken seriously. Information (in German) on bathing waters is available on site, from the local health and environment authorities and on the Internet. To locate bathing sites in different areas in Germany, click Auskunftsstellen (information points). Under the heading Lakes and rivers you can learn more about the quality of water bodies in Germany and measures taken to improve their status.

Further information