Course:FRST370/Projects/The bisses: a community-based management of water resources in Valais, Switzerland
In the alpine canton of Valais, Switzerland, the bisses (or Suonen in german), a traditional irrigation system, have been used by local mountain communities for several centuries. The primary function of these mountain irrigation channels was to bring melted water from high altitudes glaciers to the pastures and cereal fields localized in the valley below in this area characterized by very low summer precipitation levels. Discarded in the 20th century with the agricultural decline, the bisses are currently bringing a new interest, from local community to the canton and the municipalities of Valais, due to their cultural, touristic and sustainable value. The renewal of the Valaisan bisses leads us to think about their new management, organisation and functions as well as their part in the inner Swiss valley heritage.
- 1 The Consortages and their bisses
- 2 The canton of Valais, Switzerland
- 3 The history of bisses
- 4 Tenure arrangements
- 5 Administrative arrangements
- 6 Stakeholders
- 7 Discussion & Assessments
- 8 Recommendations
- 9 References
The Consortages and their bisses
The Consortages in Valais, a rare example of a successful community-based management of water resources over time.
The Consortages are local mountain irrigation communities responsible for the maintenance and management, but also at the origin of the construction of the bisses in Valais, Switzerland. The bisses were appropriately defined by Vautier (1928) as “artificial channels dug or built on mountainsides and which, by transporting the waters on several kilometers, enable the irrigation required for soil fertility” [translated by author] (as cited in Schweizer, 2010, p. 6). They were created by a group of individuals “who share a limited resource relationship” (Crook & Jones, 1999a, p. 79) and gather together all across the Canton of Valais to ensure the future of pastoral farming, the main source of income in Valais at these times. Therefore, the Consortages embody a successful model of “Common-Pool Resources (CPR) institutions” (Schweizer, 2014, p. 30), or “Common property institutions or regimes (CPRs)” (Jeanrenaud, 2001, p. 30), that have flourishingly managed to avoid the sadly familiar tragedy of commons through a strict self-regulation and a well-organized repartition of the rights and obligations between its members –the Consorts. Moreover, the bisses, open-air channels, as well as the water they irrigate, are characterized by low exclusion and high rivalry, two key aspects of common goods (Barraqué, 2011, p. 9).
Recently however, the positive image of these particular CPRs has been reassert by several authors. Indeed, the Valaisan traditional irrigation system seems to have experienced a switch from being considered as a “common-pool resource […] to […] a club-good resource” (Schweizer, 2014, p. 8) due to the modernisation of irrigation and the end of the water penury regarding the agricultural sector, but more importantly, because of the exclusive character of its management and its strict regulation which allows to avoid competition (Schweizer, 2014, pp. 3-5). Thus, the bisses can no longer be deemed as a public service “since it concerns only the ones that are interested in it” [translated by author] (Barraqué, 2011, p. 8), namely the Consortages’ members. Nevertheless, the sustainable character of their management could restore their legitimate CPRs statut in a near future, as they could acquire a predominant role in supplying water to the growing population of Valais.
The canton of Valais, Switzerland
Characteristics of the Canton of Valais (Wallis in german), the 'Sunny Country' of Switzerland.
Our case study takes place in the Swiss Canton of Valais in the Alps, a semi-arid mountainous area of 522'442 km2 with a permanant population of 335'696 in 2016. Furthermore, the Canton can be split in tree economical zones:
- Haut-Valais (Upper Valais);
- Valais Central (Central Valais);
- Bas-Valais (Lower Valais).
The majority of the bisses are located in the Central Valais, the Canton’s driest region characterized by low annual levels of precipitations, high average temperatures, exceptional longs hours of sunshine throughout the year, and the presence of the foehn, a notorious warm and dry wind. Extreme climatic conditions which can explain the concentration of bisses in that specific zone of Valais.
The history of bisses
"The bisses, those are hydraulic facilities and a complex organisation" [translated by author] (Reynard, 2008, p. 3)
The first written mention of these irrigation channels dates back to the 11th – 12th centuries , but it is assumed that they invention may have originated in the Iron Age (Crook & Jones, 1999a, p. 79). Different authors agree to say that the bisses were constructed in response of the inhospitable Valaisan climate, a restraining factor for agrarian activities. However, this is “not a sine qua non for land use” [translated by author] (Schweizer, 2010, p. 9). Indeed, it seems that the history of these artificial water channels is scarred by phases of expansion and decline linked to the fluctuating socio-economical context that have characterized each different century (Schweizer, 2010, p. 10-17):
11th – 12th centuries
A substantial expansion of the tradition irrigation network took place, linked to the European black plague and the fall of the cereal demand that followed, "allowing [...] to commute from a subsistence-oriented agriculture to a more commercial exploitation of the land, particularly through livestock breeding” [translated by author] (Schweizer, 2010, p. 11)– a type of agriculture which requests more water.
The network development became stable and some bisses, made useless by the glaciation of the Little Ice Age, were even dismantled or simply abandoned.
A second expansion of the network due to the warming climate, a new growth of the population, the expansion of the railway to Sierre (one of the biggest city of Central Valais) that enabled the exportation of products of livestock farming, and the high demand of water of new irrigated areas (vineyards) in the 1860s.
Phase one of the modernization of the bisses with, for the first time, direct implication of the government via subventions given by the Canton of Valais (1885) and the Confederation (1894), with a view to oversee the improvement of the irrigation system (Schweizer, 2010, p. 12-13) . This implied the construction of new bisses but also the birth of the first tunnels.
20th century (1920-1980)
Second phase of modernization of the network with a switch from gravity irrigation to spraying irrigation techniques –a more green and economic irrigation process– and implementation of new building methods and materials (concrete, tunnels, explosives, pumping) supported by new legislative measures. This episode, coupled with the economical and social changes that affect mountainous area in the 1950s such as the decline of agriculture, industrialization, rural exodus, and new types of land use linked to tourism and urbanisation has lead to what Michelet (1969) considered as “the fall of the pastoral Valais” [translated by author] (as cited in Schweizer, 2010, p. 15).
More precisely, the 20th century has marked the downward path of the bisses' system, which will result in an easing of the rules concerning access to water, facilitating, in some cases, the use of it by outsiders e.g. the Grand Bisse d’Ayent (Reynard, 2002, p. 88 & 92).
Since the 1980s, the interest in the bisses of Valais appears to be experiencing a revival with a new multifunctional approach. Indeed, heritage, touristic and sustainable dimensions are added to the initial agricultural value of bisses . Thus, the tourism industry is set as a new actor in the management of the tradition irrigation system, which seeks to enhance summer tourism through the promotion of 'soft tourism' –a gentler and more contemplative type of tourism, in opposition to the concepts of risk and sport effort seen in 'hard tourism'. This new management perspective benefits to the bisses via “a development process of the traditional landscapes and the sociocultural heritage of Valais” [translated by author] (Schweizer, 2010, p. 16-17). Moreover, several Federal and Cantonal new guidelines are implemented in order to promote and protect the bisses, which reveal a new implication of the government concerning this community-managed system.
The bisses between private, State and mixed-ownership.
Governance in Switzerland is largely decentralized and great autonomy is given to the Cantons and the Communes according to the "subsidiarity principle" (Jeanrenaud, 2001, p. 114). Thus, rivers, except from the Rhône, are owned by the Communes, and the bisses are built by the Consortages by the courtesy of the latter (Vautier, 1942, p. 35). In that respect, two types of management of the bisses exist:
- by the Consortages that created the channels or bought their right over it;
- by the Communes who own the river from which the water is caught (Vautier, 1942, p.35).
Private property hold by the Consortages
The Consortages' ownership over bisses oscillate between a private and communal type of tenure. Indeed, in this case study we are talking about a communal resource (i.e. the bisses and the water flowing into it) held by an identifiable community of interdependent users (i.e. the Consortages and their Consorts), with use rights regulated by mutual agreements between the members of the group (i.e. water rights and tasks), and from which outsiders are excludable. Only, in most communal tenure cases, community members have equal rights, which are not transferable. These last points are incorrect concerning our case study, since the bisses' accessibility system is characterized by fairness within the group but inequality regarding outsiders, and moreover, their usufructs are transferable. For that reason, the Consortages have rather a freehold type of tenure over the bisses, which is exclusive and transferable from a generation to the next by inheritance. Moreover, as has been seen, these mountain corporations manage the use of the water resources through a complex and rigorous regulation, and have the right to exclude others and to regulate accessibility through "indirect and direct exclusion mechanisms" (Schweizer, 2014, p. 7-8). Therefore, bisses and the water that flows in it can be defined as club goods –high exclusion and low rivalry.
|Exclusion||high||Markets goods||Club goods|
|low||Common-pool resources||Public goods|
To synthesize, the bisses are characterized by a full private type of property, free of any obligation regarding the State or other non-governmental party, coupled with a bottom-up system “founded on a series of arrangements that are bore endogenous (i.e. coming from users) and customary (i.e. based on non-written multi-secular practices)” (Schweizer, 2014, p. 3), and which requires the active participation of all members of the Consortages “in defining operating rules, network development and maintenance, and in the actual running of the network” (Schweizer, 2014, p.3). Thus, the irrigation communities have customary rights (i.e. water rights practiced since several years and locally acknowledged) that have extended overtime to de jure rights with communal legal title over the bisses recognised by the government at the Federal, Cantonal and Communal levels.
Moreover, it is important to note that a private ownership has limits regarding what may contains the land (water, wildlife, etc.). Nevertheless, “time and again, occur with water itself, the legal problems, the trials regarding the exclusive nature of the water right regarded as a ‘privilege and marker of notability’” [translated by author] (A.H.S.R., 2002, p. 207), and given the fact that this case study is about private tenure held over an irrigation system that implies exclusion and restricted rightst, it looks like the Consortages do own the water that flows in the bisses they have built.
In theory, CPRs should present more equity than private or State property regimes, but this is unfortunately not translated in practice. It is only “in addition to public and individual ownership, [that] communal […] property can provide a socially equitable and environmentally sound basis for […] [natural resource] management” (Jeanrenaud, 2001, p. 136). This is the case regarding the bisses which are “between traditional state regulation and the utopia of mechanical regulation through the market” (Schweizer, 2010, p. 3).
Finally, these community rights are reinforced by a higher authority, the Canton of Valais, which “avoids carefully any unfortunate centralisation, but rather promote the particularism which allows the development of the irrigation system” [translated by the author] (Vautier, 1942, p. 30).
State property hold by the communes of Valais
In some cases, the bisses can be managed by the Communal government (Vautier, 1942, p. 35); for example, if the irrigation includes the whole Commune, or if a Consort gives up on its use rights (i.e. water rights) and transfers them to the Communal administration (Reynard, 2008, p. 5; Schweizer, 2010, p. 26-27).
State property (hold by Valaisan Communes) over the bisses implies that the channels and the water irrigated through it are owned by all the citizens within the Communes and therefore “the communal waters are sometimes sold, sometimes delivered for free” [translated by author] (Vautier, 1942, p. 38). In this situation, the decision-making concerning accessibility and governance is in the Communes’ hands, who hold de jure rights over the bisses, and who have the responsibility to enforce the law regarding the use and management of the system (Jeanrenaud, 2001, p. 114; Vautier, 1942, p. 40).
To conclude on tenure arrangements, the current state of bisses’ governance reflects “the inaccuracy of the dichotomy between, on one hand, the Communal management, and on the other hand, the management by the consortages” [translated by author] (Schweizer 2010, p. 30). Indeed, this narrow approach has been overtaken by the introduction of new private actors such as tourism agencies and other economic sectors e.g. the Grand Bisse d’Ayent is successfully managed by one Consortage, two Communes (Grimisuat and Ayent) and one hydroelectrical company (Lienne SA). Indeed, even if currently the bisses managed or co-managed by Communes are still a minority, their number tends to grow since the 20th century in parallel to the industrialisation phase and the general disinterest regarding the bisses and their use rights (Schweizer, 2010, p. 34). This gain of importance of tenures held by the Consortages in collaboration with Communes or private actors is due to the fact that they appear to be more efficient than privately owned bisses. Indeed, in most of the cases, because of the massive socio-economical changes that occurred and affected the irrigation traditional model, the Consortages’ dynamism seems to be slowdowned (abandonment of water rights, lack of subsidies, security problem due to poor maintenance) (Schweizer, 2010, p.31). However, in other situations, such as for the Grand Bisse d’Ayent, due to the implication of the Consorts and the corporation’s President, the Consortage involvement seems to have experienced a fresh impetus illustrated by a strong internal organization, a reliable financial support, and a multifunctional approach (Reynard, 2002, p. 92; Schweizer, 2010, p. 31).
As the material irrigation system, the administration of bisses has evaluated through time and changes.
The Consortages (Consorts and elected Presidents) are at the basis of the governance and organization of the bisses. Originally, rigorous repartition and limitation of use rights were set by the bisses' users to avoid competition, but also because of the ascetic continual maintenance and supervision the system required. Thus, each Consortage has its own rules and customs, which vary in number and in content according to the bisses, and which are not externally linked together (Vautier, 1942, p. 40).
To ensure the efficiency of the system, the group would elect a committee in charge of the enforcement of the rules for a given period through its Prosecutor (Commission Culturelle de Vex, 2003, p. 4; Vautier, 1942, p. 40). Moreover, some irrigation union would also hire a bisse-keeper (guarde-bisse) whose role was, besides general monitoring and maintenance of the channels (Cook & Jones, 1999a, p. 91; Gerber, 2009, p. 23-24; Schweizer, 2014, p. 3; Vautier, 1942, p. 42-44), to ensure the equal repartition of the water between the Consorts (Vautier, 1942, p. 42). This main character can be consider as the “executive power” [translated by author] (Vautier, 1942, p. 42) in the bisses’ administrative system, as well as the Prosecutor who was responsible to judge and punished the non-respect or rules by users through financial compensation.
About other coercive mechanisms that would ensure the efficiency of the system and the cooperation of all Consorts there is “the lack of anonymity and the communication between players” (Finger & Borer, 2013, p. 15) that has made the Consortages such a successful example of community-based management of a natural resources; but also through more unsubstantial methods such as the sacralising of bisses and the enouncing religious after-life punishment that would fall on the disrespectful users e.g. dammed souls sentenced to wander on Earth for eternity (Vautier, 1942, p. 36).
On the juridical scale, there is a lack of recognition of the CPRs by the Confederation due to the general disinterest concerning common property that followed the consecration of private and exclusive ownership. Thus, the Consortages are mostly acknowledged by the Cantonal law and “the legal management of these corporations can be defined as very loose, since they are free regarding their statutory organization and the setting of the rights over the resource” (Schweizer, 2014, p. 31).
- Water rights:
There are two types of water rights: (1) the rights bought and hold by the Consortages to take water from the river, granted buy the Communes; and (2) the rights hold by the Consorts to use the water flowing into the channels (Reynard, 2008, p. 4). Thus, water rights were expressed in “hours” of water received, which were proportional to the size of the land owned by each user. At the outset, water rights allocated to each Consort were specified on small graduated wooden sticks (tailles/Tessle), which were kept by the Commune or the committee’s Prosecutor (Gerber, 2009, p. 18-21; Zen-Ruffen, 2012, 12:00).
- Corvées (tasks):
Each Consort’s work time was based on the amount of “hours” of water received, and therefore, those with greater water hours (with more land to irrigate) had to contribute more (Schweizer, 2014, p. 9).
Local groups subject to the effects of the decision-making regarding the bisses.
The principal stakeholders are the several Consortages of Valais and its members who are directly affected by the actions taken over the bisses and the area they occupy. Their main relevant objectives are to protect the traditional irrigation channels as part of the Swiss patrimony and to keep them within a community-based management.
Concerning their relative power, as seen above, Consortages have Cantonal and Communal legal recognition and a more wider interest seems to occur with the “patrimonalisation” (Weissbrodt, 2010, p.4) process undertaken at the National and international levels with the implication of new economic and non-governmental actors.
Lastly, a local movement, from the Association of the Bisses of Valais (ABV) emerged to classify the bisses on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014 (Schweizer, 2010, p. 23; Weissbrodt, 2010, p. 4); an application which failed due to the fact that the channels were modified and the genuine material used to build them had disappear through time.
State and Citizens of Valais
With the current growth of the Cantonal water demand, Valaisan households can be consider as another important stakeholders since they could be dependent on the sustainable irrigation system in a near future (Finger & Borer, 2013, p. 16; Reynard, 2008, p. 5).
Interested Outside Stakeholders
External groups interested in the activity concerning the bisses.
State of Switzerland
The Confederation, and the Canton and Communes of Valais are all stakeholders that present a certain interest in the bisses. Indeed, as for the citizens of Valais, the traditional irrigation system also represents for regional authorities (Canton and Communes) an assurance against the actual growing pressure on water resources of Valais, and a sustainable and efficient solution for the future of irrigation. Moreover, since the 1980s, the bisses seems to be acknowledged as a consequent part of the Swiss heritage that both Federal and regional authorities want to preserve and promote through the implementation of various policies.
Thus, the government has high power over these infrastructures, as it is considered that the financial help provided for the maintenance of bisses is, for the most part, the key of their revival. This new rising interest at the Federal and Cantonal scales can be translated by “a number of different legislative processes, which protect and/or promote the agricultural, patrimonial, cultural, natural, landscape and tourist value” (Crook & Jones, 1999b, p. 59):
- Agricultural sector: recognition of the irrigation system as “item of the agricultural heritage” [translated by author] (Crook & Jones, 1999b, p. 59; Schweizer, 2010, p. 21) and financial support from the Canton (Schweizer, 2010, p. 21);
- Land use development: protection and recognition at the Cantonal level (Crook & Jones, 1999b, p. 59; Schweizer, 2010, p. 20-21);
- Landscape and nature protection: regional recognition of the bisses as “valuable transformed landscapes” [translated by author] (Crook & Jones, 1999b, p. 59 & 60; Schweizer, 2010, p. 20-23);
- Tourism: Federal and Cantonal subsidies to develop and promote bisses as hiking trails (Crook & Jones, 1999b, p. 59; Schweizer, 2010, p. 19-20).
Private and mixte parties
This last policy enables to introduce another major interested stakeholder, which is the private sector of tourism. Indeed, the touristic parties seem to be the starting point of the recognition of the cultural value of bisses by refitting sections of the channels and promoting them as hiking trails for summer tourism.
Moreover, other private actors have recently emerged in the management scheme of the bisses such as hydro-electrical power agencies that shows a particular economical interest, and who gladly participate in the maintain of the system by providing financial support to Consortages and Communes as it represents “the principal method of supplying water in the Valaisan hydrosystems” (Schweizer, 2014, p. 3).
|Groups||Interests||Source of power||Scale of Influence||Means to achieve interests|
||Private ownership over the bisses;
Local power (Communal and Cantonal recognition of use rights);
High power and high interest –low interest in the case of the disinterest of some water rights' owners
|Mainly local, but starts to spread at Federal (subsidies) and international levels (i.e. UNESCO candidature)||Local action;
Lobbying e.g.Association of the Bisses of Valais (ABV);
|State (Federation of Switzerland, Canton and Communes of Valais)||
||Local (Communes) regional (Canton) and national (Federation)||Implementation of Federal, Cantonal and Communal policies|
|Private and mixte parties||
Political and local support
High interest, high power
|Local, national and international||Co-management of bisses with CRPs;
Financial support to local groups
||High interest, high to low power (Swiss popular vote i.e. referendum, tourists impacts and influence on economy)||Local, national and
|Implication in the sustainable maintenance of the channels;
Supporting tourism activities
Discussion & Assessments
The bisses, “between traditional state regulation and the utopia of mechanical regulation through the market” (Schweizer, 2014, p. 3).
It has been showed that the interest expressed by Consorts regarding the bisses is not economically directed. Indeed, even if there might be certain commercial motivations behind every CPRs (Crook & Jones, 1999b, p. 61), the main goal remains to preserve “the tradition of passing land uses and water rights from generation to generation” (Finger & Borer, 2013, p. 15). Moreover, if some say that the Consortages have already proven their ability to combine traditional and contemporary irrigation technics through history, and the presence and current rebirth of bisses could be interpreted as a success of their community-based management (Crook & Jones, 1999a, p. 79; ), the majority agreed to say that this would not have been possible without the help of external parties as the government and private economic actors (Crook & Jones, 1999a, p. 80 and p. 97; Crook & Jones, 1999b, p. 50 and p. 59; Barraqué, 2011, p. 9).
Moreover, there may be an issue regarding the accessibility and equality within and outside the Consortages, which would be better refers as clubs-good than CPRs. Indeed, the common-good management of bisses seems to have been embellished by previous literature as an equitable sharing system –Crettaz (2011) is even referring to the process of “Disneylandelisation” of bisses (as cited in Schweizer, 2014, p. 2). Thus, it has been showed that inequality exists concerning the allocation of rights within the groups, and the accessibility of water, which is restrained by the exclusion of non-members.
Furthermore, even though it is largely accept that the bisses hold ecosystem services on landscapes and biodiversity (Crook & Jones, 1999a, p. 80, 1999b, p. 50; Schweizer, 2010, p. 1, 79 & 84), in particular through the loss of water induced by the gravity-fed irrigation technique, yet it appears that their management can't be generalized as 'sustainable'. Indeed, according to Schweizer (2010), identifying whether bisses are sustainably managed or not requires a case-by-case analysis due to:
The extremely localized nature of the administration [...] [which arise] mostly from the local components of the institutional regime (communal regulations) and a strongly territorialised regulative arrangement, comprised of formal and mainly informal agreements between the local actors, as well as the rules implement by the users themselves (auto regulation) [translated by author] (p. 157).
More importantly, the issue of the succession and the growing disinterest of the Consorts concerning their water rights, coupled with the current increase of the Valaisan water demand could at term result on a shift from a community-based management system to a regional-managed one (Reynard, 2008, p. 5). Thus, some are expressing doubts concerning the new economical (external) interest that bisses are generated, as stated by Finger & Borer (2013):
If financial aspects are emphasized by the government, this may change the perception of community members and may push the actual motivations into the background.… […] the creation of institutions that enable a self-governance and communication, as well as knowledge transfers (e.g. on specific environmental problems) may be another path that should be followed in the future. (p. 16).
Indeed, the majority of the Consorts are part-time farmers, or even not farmers anymore, therefore this could be leading to a new abandonment of the bisses (Schweizer, 2010, p. 22).
To conclude, the growing multifunctional role of the water channels and the number of actors involved in their management could result in the increase of conflicts regarding the resource, and therefore could need the implementation of arbitrary parties as well as new mechanisms of governance, in particular concerning security and responsibility in case of accidents (Reynard, 2008, p. 5, Weissbrodt, 2010, p. 4).
|Categories of uses||Uses types|
|1. Agricultural functions
1.1 gravity-fed irrigations (pastures)
1.2 spraying irrigations (pastures)
1.3 long-distance (vineyards / lawns)
|1.1 Consortages, farmers, breeders
1.2. Consortages, farmers, breeders
1.3 Consortages, vine sector, households
|2. Touristic uses||Communes, touristic sector, individuals|
|3. Security functions
3.1 water disposal
|3.1 Communes, civil protection, households
3.2 Communes, fire brigade, civil protection, households
|4. Micro-electricity||Households, private and mix companies, industrial sector|
|5. Socio-cultural functions||Local communities, consortages, individuals (autochtones and allotochtones)|
|6. Ecosystem services||No directly identifiable actor-users|
|7. Waste transport and intake||Public collectivities, households and companies (agricultural sector)|
Future challenges facing the commonity-based management of the bisses.
Currently, the main role of the bisses system appears to be it sustainable aspect, which relies on the capability of the Consortages to self-organized themselves and to enable the development of the system through time and ages, even if this means to open the resource to outsiders (Communes, hydro-electrical power companies, etc.). Therefore, an opening towards collaboration with Communal authorities and other non-governmental sectors could ensure the system’s longevity, preserve the irrigation channels as well as their symbolic and cultural value to local communities, and ensure and develop the sustainable aspect of the bisses' management and their ecosystem services. To this end, Schweizer (2010) suggests three modalities which are:
(1) Enhance the use and maintenance of the network through implementation of public policies (financial motivation);
(2) Protect and maintain the channels via opening their access (assignment of informal and formal usufructs to environmental interested actors);
(3) Sensibilize the users and owners through strong support of government authorities and implied actors (p. 91).
Lastly, in 2018, the Swiss glaciers have experienced a recession of 2,5% of their mass. This requires to think about the threat that represent the current climatic change to the primary source of water irrigated by the bisses (glacial rivers), as well as to their efficiency and mainspring. Indeed, the possible future downfall of the European water tower, which Switzerland embodies (glaciers, groundwater tables, lakes, etc.), could take with it the main utility of the Valaisan traditional irrigation channels, and thus a large part of the traditional culture of the country.
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