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While many studies and reports on water governance refer to the concept of sustainability, few of them systematically reflect on the value base of sustainability and about what it means to contextualize the general principles of sustainability in specific contexts (Schneider and Rist 2013). Consequently, only a few authors have elaborated transparent and value laden sustainability principles (Wiek - Larson 2012). In-depth reflection on the underlying values of a more sustainable future and its contextualization for specific water governance systems however, is fundamental for defining actions for more sustainable water governance and recasting policy discourse (White 2013).

According to the definition formulated in the Brundtland Report, “sustainability implies a concern for social equity between generations, a concern that must logically be extended to equity within each generation” (WCED 1987: ch. 2 para 3). This means that sustainable water governance systems should allow the current generation to meet their societal goals in an equitable way without compromising the water options of future generations (ASCE and UNESCO 1998). Based on these general ideas, and taking into account other literature on water sustainability or governance (e.g. Gleick 1998; Wiek - Larson 2012; Pahl-Wostl 2009;

Hill 2013; Gibson 2006a), four main principles for sustainable water governance systems

can be identified (Schneider et al 2014):

(1) Contribution to societal goals of regional development: This first principle states that people living today, and in the future, should be able to meet their development goals. Water availability should allow them to satisfy diverse needs ranging from household consumption and recreation to economic activities such as production of food, energy, or other goods and services.

(2) Maintenance of ecological and hydrological integrity: Maintaining the ecological and hydrological integrity of water resource systems is crucial for meeting development goals of not only the current population, but especially of future generations. This second principle is about the quality and quantity of surface and groundwater as well as about the benefits and harms to the ecosystem resulting from diverse water uses (Kondratyev et al. 2002).

(3) Contribution to social justice: As stated in the Brundtland definition of sustainability (WCED 1987), justice concerns should not only be considered between generations, but also within the current generation. Consequently, social justice has to be regarded as a basic element of water sustainability.



(4) Adaptive capacity: In times of increasing uncertainty due to socioeconomic and climate changes, the ability to flexibly respond and adapt to changing supply and demand is an essential requirement for the sustainability of water governance systems (Pahl-Wostl 2009).

Adaptive capacity is therefore considered a fourth main principle of a sustainable water governance system (ASCE and UNESCO 1998). It refers to the capacity of actors to create and respond to variability and change, as well as the impacts on the state of the system in both proactive and reactive ways (Hill 2013; Adger et al 2005).

–  –  –

Figure 3: The Sustainability Wheel for the present for Crans-Montana-Sierre Justice: The justice principle indicator ratings show that water justice as a whole is currently rather poor in the region, whether in terms of resource allocation and costs or at a legislative level.



Distributive justice: Costs, risks, and benefits of water are very unequally distributed in the region. For instance, the water richest commune (Icogne), with just a few hundred inhabitants, can use more than 50% of the water resources available (Reynard et al. 2014). Not only does this provide relief from any water scarcity problems, but it has also enabled Icogne to grant hydropower concessions and consequently to collect considerable amounts of water interest rates (Schneider et al, in print). On the other hand, the water poorest commune (Veyras) has to buy most of its drinking water from other communes and is, therefore, highly dependent on their surplus water. Moreover, water prices can vary more than 100% from one commune to another, and infrastructure costs are also highly variable.

Procedural justice: Access to water and the organization of public management bodies is regulated on different levels (national, cantonal, communal, and private laws), and decision making is mostly transparent. There is nevertheless a multitude of bilateral agreements among the different water users that are not easily accessible. At times, there is a lack of transparency because the situation is too complex, e.g. nobody has an overview about the water rights situation, or decisions are based on oral customary law and informal agreements. Most problematic is the aspect of inclusiveness. No institution exists that embraces all relevant water users on a regional level and can mediate the diverse interests of the water users (Schneider – Homewood 2013).

Contextual justice: The capabilities of the communes and other water users to access water are very unequal for various reasons. First of all, communes that contain large high mountain catchments including rivers and springs can use much higher amounts of water than communes on the lower slopes that do not possess their own wells. Second, communes that have historically held water rights for sources outside their communes have more opportunity to obtain sufficient water (Reynard 2000a, 2000b). Third, ancient water rights mainly favour agricultural water users and hinder new water users from accessing water (e.g.

for tourism and urbanization). Finally, communes with higher negotiating power can secure more favourable agreements with other communes or other user groups. This is the case for the six communes of the Haut-Plateau, which are better coordinated than the communes on the lower slopes.

The sustainability wheel demonstrates the following advantages:

(1) It allowed very different sources of knowledge (research from natural and social sciences, qualitative and quantitative knowledge, empirical, and interpretative approaches) to be combined and brought to fruition. Consequently, the Wheel facilitates in depth interactions, knowledge exchange, and learning among the interdisciplinary team of researchers.


VOLUME 4 • ISSUE 1 (MARCH 2015) (2) It allowed the consideration of complex relationships between issues of resource availability, water use, and management. In doing so, it was evident that certain measures, such as a strong increase in residual flow, might improve the indicator of surface water quantity;

however, the needs of agriculture would be compromised as a result, thus affecting the indicator of agriculture. Furthermore, it could clearly be shown that sustainable water futures can be reached (and also impeded) through different means. However, it also became clear that technical solutions alone will not solve the existing access and distribution. These solutions need to be embedded in fundamental institutional reforms.

(3) It permitted the information from disciplinary works to be structured in a meaningful way and allowed their implications to be elucidated from a comprehensive understanding of sustainability. It allowed us to easily discern which sustainability dimensions are most critical, both for today and for the different future visions, facilitating communication with stakeholders considerably. They could easily see that the water governance system can respond quite well to society’s goals of regional development and also that the situation regarding water justice is critical. Moreover, they were able to see that sustainable water futures are possible as well, although this highly depends on the social, economic, technical, and institutional reforms they are willing to take. Discussions about the reasons for certain scoring made stakeholders aware of possible trade-offs between the indicators. The Sustainability Wheel can thus be considered an excellent communication instrument.


This article has attempted to demonstrate that holistic and inclusive approaches have benefits to offer to the planning and governance of the challenges emerging from the continuing climate change debates. Governance needs to be able to deal appropriately with the emergent issues and offer the prospect of adapting to these challenges. We have reviewed three processes that can inform good practice and help governments to combat the challenges of climate change. We make no apology for retrieving these process models from the sustainability literature as we are confident that the principles of sustainability must underpin and be enshrined in the constant efforts to minimise and ameliorate the effects of climate change.

Strong communities, empowered through knowledge and participation, will be better placed to work together to meet the emergent challenges that climate change can have over our lives, our work and our futures.




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10.1080/13549839.2014.922531 ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) and UNESCO (United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture) (1998): Sustainability Criteria for Water Resource Systems. Report prepared by the Task Committee on Sustainability Criteria, W.R.P.a.M.D.

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European Commission (2009): White paper: adapting to climate change: towards a European framework for action. COM 2009 147/4 final. EC., Brussels Füssel, H.M. – Klein, R.J.T. (2006): Climate change vulnerability assessments: an evolution of conceptual thinking. Climate Change, 75: 301–329.

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Gibson, R.B. (2006b): Beyond the pillars: sustainability assessment as a framework for effective integration of social, economic and ecological considerations in significant decision-making. Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 8/3: 259–280.

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