Transporting Water: Perspectives on Urban and Rural Water Networks in Switzerland

Special Report: Forming Networks in Switzerland
By Emmanuel Reynard

Water is a dynamic resource commonly carried and stored in order to satisfy various uses. The number and intensity of uses has varied in time. This paper analyses the historical evolution of water transport in rural and urban contexts. Three water uses (drinking water, irrigation, hydropower production) as well as the domain of river training are analysed in order to demonstrate the complex interactions between urban areas and their rural countryside. The study shows that in all three domains, important new needs – geographically localised, as for example the irrigation of alpine meadows in the 15th century, urban growth in the 19th century or the development of hydropower plants in the 20th century –, have necessitated the development of large and complex water networks. In the domain of river training, the natural hydrographical networks have been drastically transformed during the 19th and 20th centuries and new networks of artificial channels have completed the natural hydrography. All these new networks have also induced profound changes at the institutional and management levels. In several cases, rivalries between indigenous and external actors have emerged. The current situation is characterised by the predominance of the so-called urban-centred model, in which the water resource is managed in order to satisfy the increasing needs of urban areas. More integrated water management – the so-called hydro-centred model –, based on the co-ordination of water uses at the watershed scale, are less diffused in Switzerland.

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