Water and peace: Made in Switzerland

Landlocked Switzerland may lie mainly hundreds of km from the sea, but water plays a big role in its mythology, history and international presence. The Swiss Navy is famous, to those who know about it. It now has 29 commercial ships. The Lake Geneva region gives Switzerland another claim to fame: international action to use water as a tool for peace among nations and international cooperation.


“Control the water and you control everything,” says the Mayor of Dirt in the satirical cartoon movie Rango (2011). The Swiss, whose mountains are the source for both the Rhine and the Rhone, know all about that.

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. Switzerland doesn’t have a military navy. But it 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 deliver water to 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 still estimates the production of its 643 main hydropower plants at 1.8 billion Swiss francs.

Developing lake at the Rhone glacier in the Swiss Canton of Valais. Such water bodies are being created as glaciers recede, speeded up by climate change. (Copyright Switzerland Tourism. Swiss-image.ch/Max Schmid)

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.

A ‘bisse’ doubling up as a tourism walkway. Many of Switzerland’s bisses are being refurbished for tourism, agricultural and environmental purposes. Similar traditional water technology exists in other mountain regions around the world. (Photo: Swiss Tourism).

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.

The Rhinefelden Falls in northeastern Switzerland. Swiss foreign policy seeks to promote water awareness and use as a tool for peace with invaluable lessons for the rest of the world. As a vital resource, water has enormous potential both for peace – and, unless properly managed – for conflict. (Photo: Swiss Tourism).

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.

Satellite view of the Nile River and its irrigation outreach (green areas) in Egypt and Sudan. Water rights – and control – are not primordial for these two countries but also for Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan and Uganda and could develop into contentious conflict issues unless properly dealt with today. (Photo: NASA).

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 was 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.

The 383 ha Ramsar-designated site at Vadret da Roseg in Switzerland.

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.

In the face of such high-minded ideals promoted by the Swiss Foreign Ministry, perhaps it’s no surprise that an embarrassing story and pictures of the Swiss military helicopters “stealing” French water from a local lake to serve to thirsty Swiss cows during a heat wave went around the world this week. Britain’s Daily Telegraph said the incident “appears to be in danger of setting off the unlikeliest of water wars”.

Apparently the Swiss asked permission from the French air force but not the local commune of Les Rousses, which owns the lake. A local newspaper said police complained after being alerted by bathers seeing the Swiss helicopters overhead. A Swiss military spokesman said the flights stopped immediately the army realized that something was wrong. The military has subsequently apologized to the French.

One dispute over water will probably never be settled. Lake Geneva will always be Lac Léman to the folk outside the Calvinist city.

PS. The Nestlé connection
More significant, and potentially more damaging to Switzerland’s reputation than the silly-season “French-Swiss water war” (when is it not silly season for some newspapers?) is the news media scrutiny of Nestlé’s bottled water practices.

This has culminated, so far, in a Bloomsberg Business Week story on 21 September entitled: “Nestlé Makes Billions Bottling Water It Pays Nearly Nothing For”.

It comes on the heels of revelations that Nestlé paid $200 for extracting water from Michigan while people in Michael Moore’s Flint have water supplies so contaminated they cannot drink it.

Caroline Winter says $343 million of the bottled water Nestlé sells comes from Michigan, “where the company bottles Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life, its purified water line”.

She charges: “Where Nestlé encounters grass-roots resistance against its industrial-strength guzzling, it deploys lawyers; where it’s welcome, it can push the limits of that hospitality, sometimes with the acquiescence of state and local governments that are too cash-strapped or inept to say no. There are the usual costs of doing business, including transportation, infrastructure, and salaries. But Nestlé pays little for the product it bottles—sometimes a municipal rate and other times just a nominal extraction fee.”

Nestlé’s aware of the controversy. Critics in Pakistan say: “What Nestlé did is use a good marketing scheme to make tap water uncool and dangerous.” They argue that promoting bottled water in developing countries has taken the pressure off the government to fix its utilities, degrading the quality of natural supplies.

Winter recalls:

“Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who retired recently after 21 years in charge [of Nestlé], drew criticism for encouraging the commodification of water in a 2005 documentary, saying: ‘One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. […] The other view is that water is a grocery product. And just as every other product, it should have a market value.’ Public outrage ensued. Brabeck-Letmathe says his comments were taken out of context and that water is a human right. He later proposed that people should have free access to 30 liters per day, paying only for additional use.”

The other side of the argument is that the bottled water business accounts for only 1% of total water usage in Michigan, for example, compared to agriculture and energy production.

And Pepsi and Coca Cola also bottle municipal water from Detroit, paying city rates, then selling back the product for profit.

Nestlé has a chief of sustainability and has funded football facilities, upgrades to city utilities, and paid $250,000 annually to one Michigan municipality to extract its water.

Nestlé even teamed up with Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi to donate 35,000 bottles per month to Flint residents, Winter notes. And Nestlé has nothing to do with the Flint controversy.

But the Swiss government must surely have expected the issue to come up during the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace held on 14 September last. For many people, it’s shocking that companies can make billions out of resources that are scarce elsewhere, without having to do much except carry out the tests that officials should do anyway.

If the Swiss policymakers were not aware of the situation, it is another case of government not knowing what its businesses are doing.

My recommendation to the politicians would have been to bring  up the issue themselves, if only to put the other side. Otherwise you risk an embarrassing scene when you have no chance to put your case.

As with the question of Nazi-claimed gold in Swiss banks, you can find yourselves stuck with a decades-long smear on your reputation, no matter how well-meaning your intentions. Your BRIDGE over troubled waters can sound like a roaring torrent if your policy can be presented as a front for business to come in later and make outlandish profits.

Maybe coincidentally, on 25 October Nestlé announced that it will collaborate with the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) to certify 20 factories by 2020. The AWS, launched in 2014, links industry leaders, public sector agencies, academic institutes, and environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

The firm works through Nestlé Waters, created in 1992. It has four certified bottling plants, including the one in Pakistan. It  promotes local water sustainability but makes no mention of pricing policies.

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.


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