Water scarcity: results of the project MontanAqua

The transdisciplinary project generated a holistic understanding of the water situation in the case study area and allowed to formulate key messages for decision-makers. We first present the insights per research question and then the key messages.

1. How much water is available in the case study region, today and in the future?

At present, there is by far enough water available to cover the needs of society, economy, and environment. By 2050, the annual water resources available will decrease only to a small extent. Seasonal shifts are, however, possible. Dry periods will occur more frequently. In such cases, water could become scarce in certain subregions, mainly in late summer. Water availability strongly depends on the glacier, which is an important water reservoir. Due to shrinking of the glacier, run-offs will increase until approx. 2060. Thereafter, the volume of the glacier will be too small to contribute to notable further run-offs (for an illustration, see figure 3 in the article “Interdisciplinary assessment of complex regional water systems and their future evolution”1 below).

2. How much water is being used?

Without taking account of hydropower, 10.5 to 13.5 million cubic metres of water are consumed per year in the study region. This is less than 10% of the water resources available. An additional 60 to 80 million cubic metres of water per year are diverted for hydropower. Depending on societal and economic developments, average water consumption will increase or decline slightly. The societal and economic development of the region is therefore a key factor in terms of future water consumption. The research results show that maximum consumption will increase by up to 60% in dry years due to the high demand for irrigation water. In dry years, the possibility of water demand exceeding supply in late summer – perhaps resulting in shortages – can be expected (for an illustration, see figure 5 in the article “Interdisciplinary assessment of complex regional water systems and their future evolution”1 below).

3. What is the situation regarding water management today?

The current water management is highly fragmented. Attention is directed above all to collecting and distributing water, while only low importance is given to water demand management. Technical solutions predominate; there is no actual political debate on the optimisation of water management. The legal framework as far as water is concerned is very complex and frequently not transparent. The price of water is on the low side in national and international comparison.

4. Is this approach to water management sustainable?

Today’s water management is only partly sustainable (see illustration below). While it is relatively sustainable from a regional development and ecological perspective, it is not equal for all parties concerned. The degree of sustainability of future water management depends on the development scenario chosen. Sustainability is significantly reduced in the growth scenario, while the scenarios of ‘Stabilisation’, ‘Green tourism’, and ‘Vision of the locals’ will all lead to an improvement in sustainability, though through different pathways (ie either through reduction of water uses, water rights reform, increased collaboration, and/or infrastructure projects; for further information about the different scenarios, access the article “Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems”2 below).

Sustainability wheel, 2015

Sustainability wheel, 2015. (Based on Schneider et al., 2015)

Five core messages

Message 1: The effects of societal and economic change are more crucial for the water situation around 2050 than climate change.

If possible, regional development must be chosen such that it limits the need for water. This would result in a significant adaptation of current practice in terms of water and space utilisation.

Message 2: The annual water volumes available are sufficient overall, both today and around 2050; nevertheless, seasonal water shortages are possible in individual areas.

Regional water management, in which all municipalities are involved, must be encouraged. In addition to further technical development and the expansion of infrastructures such as (multi-purpose) reservoirs or interlinking the supply systems, there is a need for simplified legal bases with renegotiation of regional water rights. The franchise process for hydropower utilisation in 2037 should be regarded by the concerned municipalities as a unique opportunity for the development of a multifunctional management model for the Tzeusier catchment lake. This would benefit all water users.

Message 3: Water problems are, above all, management problems at a regional level.

To reduce the need for water and to coordinate water use, there is a need for improved cooperation between the municipalities and a change of direction towards demand management. Any such change requires the formation of a regional network with appropriate legal and financial resources as well as political muscle. The canton is called on to become more involved in regional water management and to support the development of such regional organisations for water management.

Message 4: Inter-municipality, infrastructure-related measures can contribute towards securing the water supply in a sustainable fashion, but only if they are taken within the framework of extensive social and institutional reforms.

More equitable water distribution requires a re-alignment of water management to include the common welfare of the entire population. This also applies, in particular, to the planning of technical infrastructure measures for which the renegotiation of the principles and rights as regards access to water resources is required.

Message 5: Improving the databases and transparency is indispensable for the efficient planning of a more sustainable regional water supply.

The Canton of Valais should draft a strategy for monitoring the water situation. Monitoring water (supply available, utilisation) on a regional basis will provide a solid foundation for sustainable water management planning. It is also recommended to carry out an expert assessment of the sustainability of current water management practice at a regional level. Finally, a comprehensive cantonal study on the possibilities for renewing and improving the legal situation in the field of water represents a fundamental prerequisite for sustainable water utilisation, in particular in periods of water scarcity.

Author: Prof. Dr. Flurina Schneider

  1. Reynard, E., Bonriposi, M., Graefe, O., Homewood, C., Huss, M., Kauzlaric, M., Liniger, H., Rey, E., Rist, S., Schädler, B., Schneider, F. & Weingartner, R. (2014): Interdisciplinary assessment of complex regional water systems and their future evolution: how socioeconomic drivers can matter more than climate Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 1, 413–426. DOI: 10.1002/wat2.1032 

  2. Schneider, F., Bonriposi, M., Graefe, O., Herweg, K., Homewood, C., Huss, M., Kauzlaric, M., Liniger, H., Rey, E., Reynard, E., Rist, S., Schädler, B. & Weingartner, R. (2015). Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems: the sustainability wheel. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 58, 1577–1600. DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2014.938804