Academic journal article Environment and History

The Sink as a Source: Safeguarding the Raw Water Source of Gothenburg, Sweden, 1860-1980

Academic journal article Environment and History

The Sink as a Source: Safeguarding the Raw Water Source of Gothenburg, Sweden, 1860-1980

Article excerpt


The paper studies the case of water pollution in Sweden, and how the city of Gothenburg had to struggle with this issue in order to secure a source of fresh water to satisfy its demand for drinking water. It is argued in the paper that the city employed a wide variety of strategies, ranging from water treatment to acquiring property rights over the watershed that provides its water. Most importantly, the city was interested in reducing the levels of pollution in the river, and consequently became a key stakeholder in the enforcement and implementation of effective environmental legislation.


Fresh water, pollution, Sweden, environmental legislation


There is much previous research in environmental history on the course of environmental pollution. The two most commonly emphasised solutions to pollution found in this research were on the one hand technological fixes, such as treatment plants, and on the other hand environmental legislation, reducing the amounts of pollutants emitted. This paper will study the historical struggle to safeguard a raw water source that could be used to supply drinking water to the city of Gothenburg in Sweden. As J.R. McNeill has argued, the environmental history of pollution can occasionally provide some evidence of encouraging developments that may offer insights as well as inspiration for future sustainable development. (1) The case studied in this article may be considered as one example of this. Providing clean drinking water to the city was a problem because the river Gota Alv, one of the key sources for the city's water supply, was also a sink for effluent loadings from further upstream. The study starts in the 1860s, shortly before rapid industrialisation started to take off in the region. For a long period of time, as the region became increasingly industrialised, the water quality deteriorated substantially because of increasing levels of pollution of various sorts. Eventually, however, the trend did change for a number of key pollutants, to the extent that levels of some of these pollutants are now almost back at pre-industrial levels.

The city of Gothenburg was key to this process. The city initially adapted to this trend of increasing pollution, and in doing so, made use of a very varied set of strategies. Some strategies were those emphasised in much of the previous literature, such as a change (relocation) in the water source used, or treatment of the raw water supply. Once the city had settled once and for all on using the water from the river Gota Alv, the nature and levels of pollution then created problems for simply treating the water, and it became an urgent problem to at least stabilise the levels of pollution and thereby avoid endangering the future water supply for the region of Gothenburg. The city was therefore forced to embrace institutional strategies to attempt to reduce the levels of pollution in the first place. Some of these strategies fit well with the suggestions of various environmental economists, including for example the use of private bargaining once private property rights have been established. It is shown in the paper that these were strategies generally quite unsuccessful at safeguarding Gothenburg's access to suitable raw water. It was only with the development of legislated regulations at national level, as well as regional cooperative stakeholder institutions, that the deterioration in water quality was eventually reversed.


The pollution of lakes and watercourses has been a popular field of research in environmental history. Research in the environmental history of water supply and pollution in urban areas was pioneered by scholars such as Joel Tarr and Martin Melosi. (2) Much research in this tradition has shown that a common 'solution' found when pollution levels increase in a body of water is to attempt a geographical relocation--either by relocating point sources of loadings (for example the removal of waste and wastewater through sewers), or by relocating the supply of water used, most famously by the construction of aqueducts and other conduits of fresh water. …

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