Irrigation Systems of Canton Valais

Transformations in Material Culture and the Resilience of Landscape Commons

Nicole de Lalouvière

The irrigation network of Canton Valais (Switzerland) – also called ‘bisses’, ‘Suonen’, or ‘Wasserleitungen’ – constitutes a multi-secular cultural landscape. Current challenges relate to a diversified economy, increasing demand for water, and climate change risk disrupting the bisses as longstanding commons. The research project aims to understand the relationship between the resilience of the bisses as enduring landscape commons and the adaptive capacity of their material culture. Does material culture in its ‘traditional’ communal form promote the adaptive capacity of the bisses? Do changes to this communal model – particularly in terms of construction techniques, building materials, and related use practices – threaten the resilience of the bisses? This research tracks changes in construction techniques, materials and practices against transformations in the communal governance model. The life histories of irrigation artefacts are described and analysed through the phases of procurement, manufacture, use, maintenance, and discard. The broader ambition of this research is to contribute insights from the case study of the bisses to constructing and sustaining other resilient landscape commons.

Photograph by Nicole de Lalouvière

Nicole de Lalouvière