Diving for clean lakes and rivers

Switzerland has a reputation for being clean. The country's divers will disagree

The Swiss Association of Environmental and Trash Divers (SAET) aims to remove all the rubbish from Switzerland’s bodies of water.

This content was published on January 21, 2011 - 15:36
Jean-Michel Berthoud,

Since coming together last summer, the 17 divers have amassed an impressive “booty” including bicycles, tyres from cars and tractors, car wheels, stovepipes, fridges, garden benches, ammunition, oil drums, tins of paint, countless glass and plastic bottles and tins.

“I’m shocked at the lack of responsibility some people show towards nature,” SAET founder and president Thomas Niederer told “It really makes me think about things.”

Niederer, 45, who installs ventilation systems when not underwater, has been diving since 2008, when he went on a beginners’ course in Greece. He is now working to become an instructor.

For him, diving is more than a hobby – it has become an environmental project.

“I started diving in order to relax, to unwind. When I discovered everything that was underwater, it was no longer possible to relax,” he said.

He says diving is like a calling. “I can’t turn a blind eye to the rubbish, the waste produced by society, that one encounters underwater. I can’t simply swim past it.”

Just the beginning

Although there are 1,500 lakes in Switzerland, Niederer still believes they can be kept clean with fewer than 20 volunteers, because this is just the beginning.

“If [the association] continues to develop and inspires other environmentally minded divers who care greatly about our bodies of water, we could soon have 50, 100, in a few years perhaps even 250 or 500 members. And then we would be in a position to act with great efficiency.”

He points out that Lake Lucerne alone has 170 kilometres of shore – 1,200 dives would be needed to cover the lake. Even if the SAET divers were in the water every day, they would have enough work for 200 years.

Niederer speaks of a “project for a generation”. “I have a 20-year-old son who has started diving with me. He’s got another 50 years in which to dive. Others will then follow him – hopefully.”


He says they are in very close contact with several cantons. “We do our work voluntarily and for free, but we don’t want to have to pay to get rid of the rubbish we pull out. There we need the help and support of the authorities.”

Niederer has held many conversations with various offices and says he is pleasantly surprised at how straightforward and sympathetic they are to the cause.

In past weeks the divers carried out a successful project with the five-star Palace hotel and the Wilhelm Tell ship restaurant in the basin area of Lake Lucerne: between two points they removed all sorts of rubbish that had accumulated at the bottom of the lake.

“The great thing for us was that even the director of Lucerne Tourism, Marcel Perren, watched what we were doing and the resulting pile of rubbish,” Niederer said proudly.

Search for funds

All SAET members have other jobs. “But because the project is so important for us, we meet once or twice during the week after work until late at night and at weekends. That’s when we go rubbish hunting.”

They volunteer for free, but diving suits and equipment are expensive.

“Up to now we have paid for all that with our membership fees and individual contributions. Safety, which is paramount, also costs, but we don’t want to wait until some sponsors or backers get involved – the project is too important to us for that,” he said.

However, sponsorship would be welcomed. “Obviously it would be very helpful if the cantons and communes, or the private sector, were to contribute. People can also hire us to do cleaning work, to do exploratory dives or to search and recover objects. We dive down to a depth of 100 metres.”

Changed attitude

Niederer has already been called a “hopeless idealist” or even an “eco-fundamentalist”, but he isn’t bothered.

“Those terms don’t apply to me in the slightest. Diving has simply radically changed my attitude towards the environment. Previously, I was one of those people who paid too little attention to the environment. Diving changed that overnight.”

He believes people should be more aware that the underwater world is the basis of our life.

“And once you realise that, your attitude inevitably changes.”

Lakeshore access

According to a survey in 2007, 61.4% of Swiss people want unrestricted access to the lakeshores. This figure rises to 71.6% in French-speaking regions, compared with 58% in German-speaking areas and 80% for young people.

According to Rives Publiques, the public right of way around Swiss lakes is governed by a complex series of federal and cantonal laws and rulings, but the Swiss Civil Code cannot be overruled.

In June 1982 the people of canton Bern voted in favour of an initiative for public access to its lakes and rivers. But the law is only poorly implemented.


Only 50% of the shores of lakes Zurich, Geneva and Constance are said to be accessible to ramblers. Lakes Biel and Thun have sections of the shoreline which are accessible to the public.


Lake Neuchâtel serves as a model to others. A shoreline path exists from Marin-Epagnier to the canton Vaud border.

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