While the American West stumbles forward into an already dangerous drought—and it's barely even summer—Berliners are simply not using enough water. This means that the city's water table is now on the rise, and it's beginning to threaten the city's buildings from below. Some basements have already been affected.
As The Economist explains, "Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the groundwater level has risen by over half a meter." This is because, amongst other reasons, former East Berliners, price-shocked by the market rate for water and looking to save their money, and former West Berliners, motivated to conserve resources in the name of environment stewardship, both cut back quite drastically on their daily usage. Indeed, contemporary Berliners are now using only two-thirds of what they should be.
Why does this matter? After all, it sounds like a win-win for conservation. But the backstory here is somewhat incredible.
It turns out, The Economist adds, that this silently rising underground flood "now threatens much of the Berlin that tourists see. When Potsdamer Platz, formerly in the Wall's death strip, was remade into its present, modern form, garages had to be built behind dams to keep out the water. The State Opera at Unter den Linden, facing the square where the Nazis burned books in 1933, is temporarily closed for renovation for similar reasons. The Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament, has had to pump water out of its basement at huge cost."
As the water continues to rise, the city has found itself with a subterranean problem on its hands.
As it happens, in fact, I was a backpacker in Berlin way back in the winter of 1998/1999, when the huge platform over what is now the new Potsdamer Platz was still under construction. I remember walking around the massive construction site there, amongst the rebar and piles of building materials, and being able to look down to see workers SCUBA-diving in the very center of the city: a huge open pit with oxygen-tanked construction workers swimming below the surface of Berlin as if some new ocean had appeared, washing and surging against the foundations of buildings.
But it turns out this is now somewhat literally the case: there really is an underground lake on the rise, albeit in the form of the region's natural water table, and it is beginning to interfere with the world of architecture perhaps foolishly constructed above it. What's so interesting is that, in parts of the city such as Potsdamer Platz, Berlin is already engineered as a kind of hydrological bulwark against these encroaching waters, but perhaps the rest of the city will have to follow suit in the decades ahead.
Imagine the dream-like insanity of a city that needs to turn itself into something like a vertical dam to survive: re-engineering itself not to keep the ocean out, but fortifying itself from below to prevent a lake from rising up onto the sidewalks and streets. It's as if the fate of Berlin now is to turn itself into a fleet of inland ships, a grounded armada awaiting its moment at sea. [The Economist]
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