Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Did you know that Berlin has 2,107 officially registered street water fountains (mostly hand pumps) which are regularly serviced and in running order?
Berlin´s Strassenbrunnen or Trinkwassernotbrunnen, even the charming well over 100-year-old “Luchhammerpumpen”, including those seemingly dozing under the slowly creeping layer of rust, play a crucial role in the life of the metropolis: they are independent emergency wells in case the regular water-supply system collapsed. When the war ended in 1945 those street pumps were a life vein for 2.8 million people.
Today the city is prepared for all sorts of black scenarios: from technical problems paralysing the water mains, through pollution (e.g. during heavy flooding) to war and even deliberate poisoning: at a secret location somewhere in Berlin, it stores 30 million water-purifying tablets that would be necessary to make the water drinkable again.
It is worth knowing that despite the appearances, two-thirds of all Berlin´s street water fountains deliver perfectly potable product straight from the ground water level underneath. Delicious, healthy and clean. If it should not be so – when the water contains germs , for instance – a special plaque informs thirsty passers-by that they should steer clear of the pump and drink something else elsewhere.
A street pump with the handle chained to its main body and thus impossible to use means the water has been polluted with heavier contaminants. Think about it next time you see someone wash their car (even without soap!) in the street: the Berlin Water Law is strict in this respect and forbids any such thing in over ¾ of the city. Additionally, 212 km² of the 819 km² of Berlin´s total area are covered by 13 water protection areas where the rules are even stricter. Clearly, the rule of thumb to follow would be: go the car wash. And clean after your dog…
But the water from Berlin´s street wells has another crucial role to play: drinkable or not it is necessary for extinguishing fires – a fact that makes the fountains and pumps indispensable to the power of two. And explains why the responsibility for their maintenance lies not only with the Bezirksämter (borough authorities) but also with the Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenhilfe (Federal Office of Civil Protection and Disaster Assistance).
As for the distribution of Plumpen (Berlinerisch for a street pump) within the city, slow-paced Berlin cyclists and city flâneurs will be quick to notice a large discrepancy between the number of street pumps in the former West and in the former East of the city. While the East Berlin authorities did not need to worry about a possible shortage of water delivered by the municipal water mains, West Berlin was very well advised to make sure they had enough of it to keep them afloat in case the DDR chose to turn off the tap.
And so, whilst West Berlin was busy drilling new wells, East Berlin was quite content with what they had or even with less of the good thing: the number of Plumpen on the Eastern side of the Wall fell from 1300 at the end of WW2 to 500 in the 1990s. By 1989 the ratio of newly built Straßenbrunnen was 1120 in the West to 80 in the East of the city.
The post-re-unifaction boom in well-drilling in Berlin was financed by the federal authorities, Der Bund (short for Bundesregierung or the federal government), to warrant the necessary catastrophy precautions. But the imbalance persists: today, at 266 it is Berlin-Tempelhof that boasts the highest number of Straßenbrunnen in town. Which makes it almost exactly three times as many as in the former East Berlin borough of Lichtenberg (90).
By the way, should you ever feel unsure as to whether you can “pump it up” or not – be it to drink some, to shower the dog or to put your head under the cooling stream of water – the authorities in charge actively encourage the population to use the pumps: it keeps them fit, they say, and prevents the otherwise occurring “sanding” of the well. Not to mention the fact that it is free and it´s fun – two things Berlin likes the most.
To see the (incomplete as in the making) map of Berlin´s Plumpen, visit the following page.