On the water’s edge

An illustrated talk on the “Waterbook”

On February 27, 2024, an open-to-the-public illustrated talk with photographer Regina Hügli and science journalist Mathias Plüss, the authors of  “The Waterbook”, took place in the Gossau City library in the canton of St. Gallen. The event was organised by the Eastern Switzerland Blue Communities: City of Gossau public utilities, City of St. Gallen public utilities, OST – Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences, University of St. Gallen, Pedagogical University of St. Gallen and Skat Foundation.

The Waterbook deals with the topics of floods, droughts and glacier melt and reports on the local stories and experiences encountered by the authors during an expedition to four European watershed regions. The expedition integrated the Sharing Water Project and passed through France, the Czech Republic, Poland and Switzerland, exploring the following questions:

  • How do we deal with water in the future so that there is enough for everyone?
  • How can we protect ourselves from floods and droughts?
  • Can we slow down the melting of glaciers?
  • What can we do locally for our water?

In Gossau, the authors took the audience on a journey to the triple water divides located on the Lunghin Pass (CH), on the Witenwasserenstock (CH), in the French town of Langres and on the Klapperstein in the Czech-Polish border region. With pictures and insider stories about water and the people in each of the locations, we embarked on a virtual excursion to the four locations. Find out more below.

Claudia Martin, City Councillor and Head of the Supply Security Department of the City of Gossau, opened the illustrated presentation on the Waterbook in the Gossau City Library. 

The event was organised by the Eastern Switzerland Blue Communities: City of Gossau public utilities, City of St. Gallen public utilities, OST – Eastern Switzerland University of Applied Sciences, University of St. Gallen, Pedagogical University of St. Gallen and Skat Foundation.

Our joint journey to the four water divides

What are triple watersheds or triple water divides? These are places from which water flows into three different seas. They can be located on mountain peaks, flat hills or comprise simple slope changes on ridges. These zones are not only hydrological but also represent meeting points of different cultures, languages and political settings.

Klapperstein

Klapperstein was our first stop. This triple divide is situated in the Czech-Polish border region, on the top of a 1.145m high peak, from which the water can flow into the North, Baltic or Black Seas. The name, which translates to “rattling stones” in English, comes from the noise that emerges when the wind hits the stones lying on top of the summit. The authors gave us an overview of the ecological situation of the local forests, highlighting the challenges posed by acid rain, droughts, storms and bark beetles. We also heard how the community of a basin situated north of the triple point avoided the resettlement of 1,600 people by stopping a project that foresaw the implementation of 16 retention basins in the area.

Witenwasserenstock

Next, we landed on Witenwasserenstock, on the border of cantons Uri, Valais and Ticino, in Switzerland. This high alpine divide comprises the basins of the rivers Po, Rhine and Rhone. We learned how the community of the Urseren valley manages their water through the over 800-year-old Urseren Coorporation, which recognises the resource as a common good and enables citizens to participate in the decision-making. We also found out about the negative effects of the widespread growth of green alder plants in unmanaged pasture lands and how sheep could be used to combat this problem.

Photographer Regina Hügli shows the triple points that the expedition with science journalist Mathias Plüss visited as part of the ‘Sharing Water’ project.

Science journalist Mathias Plüss reports on the advanced melting problems of the Morteratsch glacier.

Lunghin Pass

Lunghin Pass, in the Swiss canton on Grisons, was our third stop. From the triple watershed located at 2.644m above sea level, water flows into the Adriatic, Black and North Seas. The landscape in this area has changed quite significantly, with the artificial straightening of rivers and generation of hydropower. We learnt about a project that relocated dams to enable the river to restore its natural landscape. This was done in cooperation with environmental associations, municipalities and farmers. We also heard about the advanced melting challenges of the Morteratsch glacier and of the innovative, albeit controversial, solutions to this problem.

Plateau de Langres

Our journey ended at the Plateau de Langres in France, from where the water flows to the Mediterranean, the North Sea and the Atlantic. In the sparsely populated, water-scarce region, agriculture plays an important role. The authors told us about a 500-hectare farm that employs sustainable farming methods and crop diversification to cope with the arid conditions in the region. We also learnt about the scandals in the town of Vittel, where Nestlé owns the rights to extract groundwater for its mineral water business. This has led to a drop in the water table, prompting the local population to fight for their water rights.

Key take-aways

After the presentation, the authors and the public came together in a questions & answers and discussion slot. The joint exchange led to important take-aways:

  • Sensibilisation on water issues needs to be strengthened. When people feel personally responsible for their water, movement arises. Awareness raising plays a key role in this process and needs to be further enhanced for the discussion on water issues to gain momentum.
  • As citizens, it is our duty to demand action on relevant water issues. People need to take up an active role in shaping the rights and obligations regarding sustainable water use and management. The Swiss system of direct democracy poses specific tools for that, such as the popular initiative, for example.
  • The interests of the different actors are not linked. Dialogue between all parties concerned is important to overcome this barrier, as well as a participatory decision-making. People and communities should be able to decide over their water too.
  • We need to rethink the uses and allocation of our drinking water resources. In Switzerland, drinking water is sometimes used for processes that do not require such high-quality water. We must optimise the consumption of drinking water resources and replace them by alternatives whenever possible (e.g. rainwater).
  • Tools for improved water resource management are available. Water flow diagrammes can be a helpful tool for illustrating the different water pathways, which are unknown to many of us. The need for water stress monitoring systems has also shown urgent, as water availability is becoming a challenge in Switzerland, especially during summer. Knowing who can use which water when is key.

Open discussion round with authors and participants.

Science journalist Mathias Plüss and photographer Regina Hügli (from left to right) with the Blue Community event organisers.

The abovementioned list if far from complete. Let us keep the discussion going and not forget that we all play a role in the conscious consumption and management of water resources. Water is a limited resource that needs to be well managed and sustainably used to ensure that the basic human right of access to water can be met over the coming years, especially in light of the challenges posed by climate change.

We would like to thank Regina Hügli and Mathias Plüss for the inspiring presentation and for taking us on their journey through the four water divides. A huge thank you to the over 50 participants who engaged in the presentation and contributed to a lively discussion and reflection afterwards. We are very grateful to our Blue Community partners, who made this event possible and for the Gossau City library, for kindly hosting the event.

Autorship

This article was compiled by Rena Salzmann and published on behalf of the Skat Foundation. A German version of this article is available here.