Three Questions on SDG 6 - Clean Water

Agenda 2030
SDG Ziel 6: Sauberes Wasser und Sanitäre Einrichtungen
Franziska Herren
Franziska Herren © private

We spoke with Franziska Herren about clean water and sanitation in Switzerland. In 2015, she launched the “Initiative für sauberes Trinkwasser” (Clean Drinking Water Initiative) with the aim to change the Suisse agricultural system through popular vote in 2021. In her daily life, Franziska Herren runs a fitness studio. Her observation of the way food is produced to the detriment of farm animals and the environment led the mother of two to take action for environmental causes.

1014: In Switzerland, a country people associate with fresh air and clean mountain water, do you find that action is needed so that people in your community can enjoy truly clean water?

Franziska Herren: While Switzerland generally enjoys an abundance of fresh and clean water, the chemical outfall of an over-intensive farming system is increasingly creating problems. Currently, one million Suisse citizens of an overall population of 8 million are being supplied with drinking water that does not meet water quality standards.

Large animal stocks driven by huge feed imports are resulting in excessive disposal of manure. This is leading to overfertilized, oxygen-depleted lakes causing groundwater pollution with nitrate, while record emissions of gaseous ammonia undermine biodiversity. Also, pesticide use is very high, leaving rivers and streams in arable regions loaded with a multitude of pesticides. Notably groundwater, the source of 80% of drinking water, is polluted with pesticides.

Politics have failed for more than 20 years to provide a solution to these problems. It is now time for citizens to act.

1014: What does your initiative aim at?  How do you rally support for the changes you request? What obstacles are you facing?

Franziska Herren: Switzerland’s legal system grants unique rights to its citizens. Any voter can initiate a so-called popular initiative resulting in an amendment to the constitution. In a profoundly Swiss tradition, our “Initiative für sauberes Trinkwasser” does not demand banning non-ecological farming but rather calls for a fundamental reform of public subsidies towards practices in tune with clean water and a healthy environment. We ask that subsidies should be restricted to farms applying pesticide-free practices, keeping a livestock that can be fed from the farmland itself (i.e. without feed imports) and refrain from the prophylactical use of antibiotics. Moreover, all public finances for agricultural research and education shall be reserved for sustainable agro-ecological practices.

What started in 2015 with hardly the required seven votes to launch our initiative and without any funding, legal and scientific expertise, or support by political parties or non-governmental organizations slowly gained momentum so we were able to present the 100,000 signatures required to move on in 2018. What really turned things around was people realizing that while they bought organic produce, 3 bn Swiss francs (3.18 bn US$) of their taxes were pumped into intensive and destructive farming practices each year. By now, our initiative has raised broad awareness of the water problem. We are confident that in 2021, Swiss citizens will adopt our call.

Opposition from the powerful farming, pesticide, and meat lobbies is fierce. So, apart from rallying public support for our initiative by press and social media activities, we continuously expose and explain the role of food production in polluting our waters and diminishing biodiversity. We are gaining support from scientists and politicians, but also have to fend attempts to discredit our initiative.

1014: In an ideal world, what would you wish for in your community and beyond with regard to achieving the U.N. goal of “clean water and sanitation”? 

Franziska Herren: Producing food without polluting water is neither a new concept, nor is it difficult to achieve as thousands of farmers have demonstrated for decades. Yet, beyond refraining from the use of chemical insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides, modern agricultural practices as a whole need to become more in tune with natural processes again. This implies preserving soils, respecting animals, and making use of natural processes and cycles rather than fighting them. Switzerland has made remarkable progress in the past decades in preventing domestic and industrial pollution and is investing billions in restoring river ecology. Swiss agriculture, however, is stuck in a vicious cycle of intensification and technological fixes, with farmers increasingly severing the link to the very natural systems they depend on. By channeling subsidies into a healthier, greener agriculture, our goal is to save our waters, albeit not at the expense of our farmers.

Switzerland hosts the headwaters of Europe’s major rivers, Rhine, Rhone, and Danube that are supplying drinking water for tens of millions European citizens. The European Union is also debating a reform of its agriculture system. It is looking to us in Switzerland where the citizens will have the opportunity to trigger a profound agro-ecological reform of agriculture by adopting the Clean Drinking Water Initiative. This would send a strong message to Brussels to follow a path that most people would like to see: Food production in tune with clean water.

* mandatory field