The Pumps That Keep Germany Dry

Mar 1, 2021 1 comments

The Ruhr valley in North Rhine-Westphalia was once Germany’s industrial heartland producing coal and steel, the two very essential raw materials of industrialization itself. Coal was mined here for at least four hundred years, usually from shallow drift mines along the Ruhr river. But with the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the demand for coal and steel increased and the deeper-lying coal seams were reached out for the first time. Within a matter of decades, Ruhr’s coal output skyrocketed—from 2 million tons per year in 1850 to more than a hundred million tons at the end of the 19th century. Likewise, steel production rose from a mere 11,500 tons per year to 8 million during the same period.

View over the Ruhr Area from the Mottbruchhalde, in Gladbeck.

View over the Ruhr Area from the Mottbruchhalde, in Gladbeck. Photo: Berndbrueggemann /

Ruhr’s exponential industrial growth drove massive urbanization across North Rhine-Westphalia. People migrated from all over Germany and the adjoining regions to work in the mines, in the collieries and in the ironworks. Small towns with only 2,000 to 5,000 people in the early 19th century grew to become major cities with population in hundreds of thousands.

Ruhr’s coal industry began to decline starting from the mid-20th century. By the 1970s, Germany had exhausted the easy-to-reach coals and mining the Ruhr valley was no longer competitive. The steel industry too went into sharp decline, as its prices were undercut by lower-cost suppliers from emerging industrial centers, such as Japan. Today, Ruhr is still an important industrial center, but its economy has migrated to service industry such as health, information technology, transport and logistics.

Halde Haniel in Bottrop

An amphitheater in a former slag heap, Halde Haniel in Bottrop. It is one of the highest Slag Heaps in the Ruhr area with a height of 159 meters. Photo: Rab Lawrence/Flickr

Although Ruhr no longer produces coal, centuries of mining has left an indelible scar on the geography of the region. Colossal heaps of refuse lie scattered all around the region, made up of earth, rocks and anything else that was not coal. These are called ‘halde’ in German, or pit heaps. Many of these have been reclaimed with vegetation and landscaping and transformed into parks and lookout points. Others have become home to public artworks and installation.

Related: Ruhr’s Slag Heap Tourism

Coal mining has left another legacy in the region—it has sunk the ground by as much as 20 meters at places, below the water table. As a result, water tends to pool and if weren’t for the 180 pumps installed all around Ruhr, this densely populated region with over 5 million residents would become a lake district.

This is what the Ruhr area would look like if the pumps were to stand still

This is what the Ruhr area would look like if the pumps were to stand still. Image credit: Helge Hoffmann

The pumps operated by the Emschergenossenschaft have to move over a billion cubic meters of groundwater every year. In addition, they pump an entire river, Boye, 18 meters up into river Emscher, which flows into the Rhine, to keep water away from the populated areas. Almost a fifth of the region would be under water if it weren't for pumping, especially the core area, where most of the people live.

The first pumping station went into operation in 1914 on the Alte Emscher in Duisburg. Today, every city and every town in the affected areas in Ruhr has pumps, ranging from small electrical-box like sizes to giant machines with a capacity to pump 40 thousand liters every second. Keeping these pumps running is a perpetual cost running into millions that is borne by the coal mining corporations.

Halde Haniel in Bottrop

An art installation on Halde Haniel in Bottrop. Photo: Rab Lawrence/Flickr

What if the pumps stopped working? The devastation would not be immediate, explains Stefan Hager, who is in charge of location and geospatial services at RAG, Germany’s largest coal mining corporation. Depending on the location, it would take weeks for the groundwater to start seeping, giving technicians enough time to repair the pumps. However, Hager cautioned: “As a rule, floods do not occur from groundwater, but from heavy rain. On the Rhine it takes days to rise, on the Emscher it takes hours because the area is so sealed and the water flows away faster.”

Some believe that the pumps, at least some of them, should be switched off. This would give the region a few lakes and wetlands, making Ruhr more attractive than a barren industrial wasteland that it is now.

# Thomas Made, Why the Ruhr area would be a lake district without pumps, Der Westen
# Tom Scott, The Pumps That Must Run Forever, Or Part Of Germany Floods, YouTube


  1. A very interesting and accurate article. I live in the Ruhr area all my life but didn´t know about the pumps. Thanks!


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