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The Emscher river once used to snake its way idyllically through the rural landscape of the Ruhr region, amid woodland and swamps, past meadows and fields. Industrialisation, however, brought ecological collapse to the river with its small, slowly flowing tributaries, which has its source is in Holzwickede and joins the Rhine at Dinslaken.

Emscher in
at 1900 © EGLV / Archiv

Once only sparely populated, in the course of the 19th century the arable landscape of the Ruhr region evolved into an industrial conurbation. In some places the population mushroomed sixteen-fold within just five decades, with the consequence that the volume of effluent generated by the rapidly growing towns soared, overwhelming the weakly inclined rivers – including the sluggishly flowing Emscher river system. The land subsidence caused by mining finally brought the Emscher to a standstill, and from there all the water that had collected flooded the towns and cities with untreated effluent, bringing on cholera and typhoid epidemics.

Huckarder Straße in Dortmund 1950 © EGLV / Archiv

Emscher bei Nordstern
1951 © EGLV / Archiv

Something had to be done: what was called for was a masterplan for the entire region that would regulate the disposal and treatment of effluent and provide drainage and flooding protection. So in 1899, towns, municipalities, mining and industrial interests joined forces to found the »Emschergenossenschaft«, Germany’s first ever water management association, in order to rectify this ecological predicament. Since subsidence through mining had repeatedly inflicted grave damage on the subterranean sewer system the Emschergenossenschaft decided to convert all the existing watercourses into open sewer channels. The hitherto meandering Emscher river and its tributaries were now straightened, shortened, deepened and lined as semi-trapezoid channels with concrete shell floors and side panels to facilitate a faster, more flexible and economical removal of wastewater.

Emscher an der Brücke »An der Rennbahn« in Gelsenkirchen 2005 © EGLV / Klaus Baumers

Subsequently, the Emscher flowed through our region in a dead straight line, transporting untreated effluent in an open canal. The »Köttelbecke« – »dung stream« in local slang for the Emscher – left a deep scar on the landscape of the Ruhr region.