“Control the water and you control everything.” The Mayor of Dirt in Rango (2011)
Admiral of the Swiss Navy is the derisive term used in the U.S. military for someone with an overbearing sense of self-importance. Swiss Navy is also the name of a silicone lubricant in the U.S. But Switzerland does have a company-sized naval unit, a flotilla of patrol boats for its lakes that are part of the Swiss Army’s Corps of Engineers. They are used mainly for search and rescue as well as policing Switzerland’s water borders.
The Swiss merchant navy, however, does play a role in national security. It was created during the Second World War in 1941, to ensure the country secured basic commodities through ships flying a neutral flag, but vessels never sail within sight of Swiss soil and only one percent of their crews are Swiss.
Under Swiss law, the government can still commandeer into national service the private vessels from the six companies that own them.
Just as important to Switzerland is what water specialists call “blue energy”. The hydro-resources locked up in its glaciers, snowtops, lakes and rivers feed both the North Sea and the Mediterranean through the Rhine and the Rhone. Other rivers feed into the Danube to the north-east and the Po valley to the south.
At the beginning of the 1970s, hydropower accounted for almost 90 percent of domestic electricity production. With the advent of nuclear power, this has since dropped to 56 percent. The government estimates the production of its 643 main hydropower plants at 1.8 billion Swiss francs.
The country has 103 lakes over 30 hectares in area, a number that may increase because of climate change with fast-melting glaciers and snowfields creating new bodies of water.
They are firmly anchored in Swiss mythology. The Swiss national (and probably mythic) hero William Tell escaped from the tyrannical Hapsburg bailiff on Lake Lucerne because of his familiarity with warm fall winds. This enabled him to take over the tyrant’s boat during a storm.
In the 18th century, the irascible Genevan writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau took refuge on the Isle de Saint-Pierre in the Lake of Bienne from July to October 1765. Drifting on the lake, the 53-year-old Rousseau said he could finally “feel my existence with pleasure, without any effort to think”. The island became the centre-piece of his final book, The Reveries of a Solitary Walker.
Saint-Pierre is now a place of pilgrimage but Rousseau’s English biographer Leo Damrosch has pointed out: “While Rousseau is remembered in Geneva by an Isle Rousseau that didn’t yet exist in his day, he is remembered at the Lac de Bienne by an island that isn’t one any longer”. A regional public works project in the 1870s lowered the water level by two metres and joined the island to the mainland.
In fact, the Swiss regions suffering from water scarcity have brought Switzerland recent fame among environmentalists, academics and political planners. “Bisses” (Suonen in German) are open channels, also found in other mountain regions such as Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush, taking water here from the high meadows of the Valais to its dry lower valleys for cattle, irrigation, drinking water and vineyards. Dating back at least to Roman times (traces of at least five have been found in the floodplain region near Sierre), bisses flourished in the 14th century and after when it became profitable to breed beef cattle for international trade.
In the 1930s many fell into disuse as engineers installed pipes and mechanized water dispersion systems. The 1980s saw a resurgence of interest in them, often from tourists. Among the fans was Elinor Ostrom, a “poor kid” from California who had become a political science professor. What she found out about the water management system for bisses became the foundation of the theoretical work that won her a share of the 2009 Nobel economics prize. She found eight “design principles” for stable allocation of resources shared in a common pool. Basically, they set out rules to ensure that local people in the communities got equal rights and responsibilities for managing the bisses — and other shared resources.
What made her discoveries so important was that the system doesn’t require government to oversee them, or even individual ownership — the conventional answer until then to “the tragedy of the commons”.
The resort of Crans-Montana has deliberately applied the Ostrom principles in managing its water channels. They also been used elsewhere for everything from protecting Pacific salmon and spotted owl to designing a public park. The revival of interest in these traditional water courses — many still used — has led the official Swiss network of hiking trails to put 94 bisse walks on its list.
Something very similar to Ostrom’s principles were operated in a Geneva-based initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme that the U.N. Secretary-General of the time described as “the jewel in UNEP’s crown”.
Founded in 1974, the Regional Seas Programme operated across the world from Geneva for 12 years, with its officers keeping in touch by phone and plane on a day-to-day, almost minute-to-minute, basis with whatever was going on in their region. Most of its early success is attributed to its dynamic Croatian Director, Stjepan Keckes, and the team built up around him.
The first achievement was in the Mediterranean, with a 1976 agreement that brought Israel and the Arab States, the North and South, together. Another 17 agreements followed along with a stream of scientific reports and popular brochures on issues such as marine mammals, climate change and the Mediterranean. “In some areas like the Caribbean and Mediterranean it fostered a sense of a shared problem and a search for common solutions,” says Carl Gustav Lundin, Director of the Global Marine and Polar Programme of IUCN.
Longtime UNEP stalwart Arthur Dahl notes: “It used the environment to build collaboration between governments that otherwise would not have worked together.”
Keckes made the Regional Seas Programme a place where long-time enemies could find a way to collaborate, proving that widely differing economies could work together without the rich nations dominating the poor. It showed the United Nations that scientific capacity-building could mean more than consultants from rich countries indulging in academic tourism in poor nations.
Stjepan Keckes recognized that environmental problems were also likely to be political, financial, or cultural, international and local rather than simply scientific, and gave all his energies to making those solutions work.
When Julia Marton-Lefèvre came to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Gland from the Costa Rica-based University for Peace (UPEACE) in 2007, she told me she believed water wa s a key issue where hostile communities could be brought to cooperate. IUCN now has a Global Water Programme and a Swiss-supported project designed to improve water cooperation across borders.
BRIDGE offers training packages and dialogue platforms for people from difference sectors, institutions and levels of government. It is currently working in 14 transboundary river basins across the world. Along with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), IUCN has trained some 2,000 people through an innovative multi-level approach, which Lin Ostrom considers to be the foundation for success in managing common water resources.
(Video link : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7igcOKFwd9w)
Since 1992 the Geneva-based United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has managed a Water Convention, which entered into force in 1996. It aims at codifying the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. Since last year it has opened up beyond the UNECE region and involves more than 110 countries.
Gland, just up the lake from Geneva, is also the home of the Secretariat managing the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands that came into force in 1976. The current 2,281 designated Wetlands of International Importance cover 220 million hectares, 11 of which are in Switzerland.
Nearly two-thirds of the world’s wetlands are estimated to have disappeared since 1900. In 1997, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment valued wetlands services to society through waste treatment, storm protection and as a food source at 15 trillion US dollars. Such recognition has prompted organizations such as WWF-International and the Swiss Fund for Africa to step up their protection of wetlands through Ramsar.
Switzerland’s role in international water management Has been ratcheted up with the launch in mid-November 2015 of a Swiss-funded Global High-level Panel on Water and Peace in Geneva. It issued its report A Matter of Survival on 14 September 2017.
This points to the Indus and Lower Mekong as examples where “joint management of water resources can continue in times of armed conflict”. Joint management of the Senegal river has also continued despite occasional tensions between Senegal and Mauretania.
The International Red Cross has gained experience in Iraq and Syria on protecting urban water services during armed conflicts, the report adds. Finding reliable partners is key, it concludes, but says well-established networks and relationships as built up by the Red Cross could represent “a possible entry point” for securing water supplies.
One dispute over water will probably never be settled. Lake Geneva will always be Lac Léman to the folk outside the Calvinist city.
Contributing editor Peter Hulm is a fan of bisses and has worked as an editorial consultant for IUCN, the WWF and UNECE. He has never been on a Swiss merchant ship, but he travels on Swiss lake steamers when he can.
This article was made possible in collaboration with Presence Suisse. Full editorial responsibility lies with Global Geneva magazine.