Vienna’s weird water obsession

Emil writes*

Austrians are weirdly obsessed and proud of their mountains, and Viennese people are weirdly obsessed and proud with their drinking water. You want an example, for this blog I wrote two of my best friends: “What is one thing we Viennese are proud of?” A few minutes later, I got the first answer, “our drinking water” and some hours later the other answered “the city’s architecture” because he thought he couldn’t say water as well. But it is not just me and my friends who think that Vienna’s drinking water tastes good. A tourist company describes Vienna’s water as unique and an important part of Vienna’s high quality of life (Kappler, n.d.).

But what makes Vienna’s water special?

Even though Austria in general has many mountains, they are nowhere near Vienna, still the city managed in the 19th century to bring water from the alps to the city. Originally, filtered water from the Danube and few springs supplied Vienna with 20.000m³ of water per day (Wien Geschichte Wiki, 2023). However, this was not sufficient drinking water for the whole city, and water quality was very low — leading to the spread of infections from cholera and typhus. After many years of debate, the municipal council decided in 1868 to build a new water pipeline, to bring high quality water from alpine springs to Vienna.

This first major water pipeline opened in 1873 and was until 1922 named “Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Hochquellenleitung” and later renamed “I. Wiener Hochquellenleitung”, theoretically bringing Vienna sufficient and perfectly safe drinking water for the whole population (see picture). Death due to water related diseases was drastically reduced as a result of the new water source. However, in reality less water than expected reached Vienna. While there was enough water most of the year and, there were still some shortages, especially in winter, when the pipe only brought 25.000 m³ on some days, compared to the typical 65.000-75.000 m³  (Wien Geschichte Wiki, 2023).

Wood carved art, depicting different parts of the “Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Hochquellenleitung” (roughly 1873) (Wien Geschichte Wiki, 2023)

Therefore, a second water pipe was built in 1910, carrying water from 180km away over 100 aqueducts. Today the second water pipeline carries 217.000 m³ of water and the original the pipeline was made longer, from its original 95km to 150km, to include more springs and carries 220.000 m³ of water (Stadt Wien, no date).

However, it is not only this early success story and the fresh alpine water that makes Vienna’s water special, instead there are two more factors which add to it. The water not only flows to Vienna without a single pump, it actually produces electricity along its way. There are 16 hydropower stations along both pipes, producing 65 million kilowatt-hours, enough to power Wiener Neustadt, a section of the city inhabited by 40 thousand people (ORF Wien, 2023). Further, the drinking water of Austria’s capital is considered to be future and crisis proof. A spokesperson from the  municipal water department claims that Vienna could be the most secure city in Europe in terms of water availability, which she reminds people to not waste (ORF Wien, 2022).

Bottom Line: If I am honest, I think there is only one real reason why Viennese people think there water is so special and that is because it comes out of the tap below 10°C, which is not only highly refreshing but also a lot cooler than elsewhere in Europe (ORF Wien, 2012).

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Vienna’s weird water obsession”

  1. Hi Emil! Great post!

    I was wondering: will these Alpine springs never dry up? Of course, it is one of the cleanest and freshest sources of water, but is it really the most secure?

    I could imagine that, eventually, even these springs could stop filling up or that the water use of Vienna could result in water “mining”. With the globe warming and ice and snow melting, will there not be a certain point in time when the Alps will not provide this source any more? How far global warming will limit snowfall remains unclear to me, when it comes to these mountainous regions. Yet, to me, it seems that it could be a future concern.

  2. I loved reading this post since it taught me a lot about the amazing water quality and “security” that Vienna seems to have (at least, for the moment!). Someting that I was wondering about is: how is the pipeline built over 110 years ago still able to supply water to the Vienna population since I am certain that the city must have grown poplation wise over the years? I get that there have been some upgrades along the way but how are those pipelines surviving for so long – are they really that well engineered or is the maintaintance of these pipelines just too good?

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