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Sustainability News


July 17, 2014

Assessing the sustainability of water governance systems: the sustainability wheel

Published online in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management on July 11, 2014.


Flurina Schneider (a,b,e), Mariano Bonriposi (d), Olivier Graefe (c), Karl Herwega (a), Christine Homewood (c), Matthias Huss (c), Martina Kauzlaric (b), Hanspeter Liniger (a), Emmanuel Rey (b), Emmanuel Reynard (d), Stephan Rist (a), Bruno Schädler (b) & Rolf Weingartner (b)


a Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

b Department of Geography and Oeschger Center for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland

c Geography Unit, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland

d Institute of Geography and Sustainability, University of Lausanne, Géopolis, Lausanne, Switzerland

e Decision Center for a Desert City, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

Flurina Schneider is a visiting scholar at Arizona State University, where she is affiliated with the School of FlurinaSchneiderSustainability and Decision Center for a Desert City of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. She holds a PhD in human geography from the University of Bern, Switzerland. Schneider has conducted research on sustainable governance of water and land in Switzerland, Germany and Chile, focusing on multiple stakeholders’ perspectives and values, processes of transdisciplinary knowledge, co-creation through social learning and network building, as well as on issues of power and social justice.

Dr. Schneider is currently the scientific coordinator of the MontanAqua project, which develops strategies for moving towards more sustainable management of water resources in the Alps (Swiss National Science Foundation, Sustainable water management (NRP61)). Within this program, she also has the lead role in two synthesis projects concerning the development of principles of sustainable water use in Switzerland as well as the analysis of potentials and limitations of transdisciplinary knowledge production in research projects of the NFP61.


We present and test a conceptual and methodological approach for interdisciplinary sustainability assessments of water governance systems based on what we call the sustainability wheel. The approach combines transparent identification of sustainability principles, their regional contextualization through sub-principles (indicators), and the scoring of these indicators through deliberative dialogue within an interdisciplinary team of researchers, taking into account their various qualitative and quantitative research results. The approach was applied to a sustainability assessment of a complex water governance system in the Swiss Alps. We conclude that the applied approach is advantageous for structuring complex and heterogeneous knowledge, gaining a holistic and comprehensive perspective on water sustainability, and communicating this perspective to stakeholders.


In Switzerland, as in many other parts of the world, there is increasing concern that water shortage problems might become more frequent. Consequently, many research and policy efforts focus on issues of more sustainable water governance. However, there are few holistic approaches, which evaluate the sustainability of water governance systems based on comprehensive, interdisciplinary assessments (Reed and Kasprzyk 2009; Wiek and Larson 2012). Most frameworks emphasize singular aspects such as quality and supply of freshwater resources (Kondratyev et al. 2002), infrastructure, adaptive capacity (Hill 2013), or social learning (Pahl-Wostl 2006; Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007). Moreover, studies that investigate the sustainability of water governance systems from holistic perspectives (Larson, Wiek, and Withycombe Keeler 2013) primarily focus on the present situation without in-depth assessments of possible future developments.

A holistic framework for the analysis of sustainable water governance systems is proposed by Wiek and Larson (2012). Their framework combines a systemic understanding of the water governance system and its evaluation through a set of sustainability principles. They stress the importance of justifying the normative claims in the system analysis with a transparent set of value laden sustainability principles.

Another approach that is commonly chosen to evaluate water governance sustainability from an interdisciplinary perspective is the application of indicators (Sullivan and Meigh 2007; Valenzuela Montes and Matarán Ruiz 2008; Ioris, Hunter, and Walker 2008; Babel et al. 2011; Lachavanne and Juge 2009 ). The great advantage of indicators is that they provide a reasonably simple tool to combine biophysical and socioeconomic information (Sullivan and Meigh 2007), and allow the reflection and communication of complex ideas by condensing their multifaceted nature into a manageable amount of meaningful information (Babel et al. 2011), yielding good learning opportunities (Ioris, Hunter, and Walker 2008). However, they also have limitations; quantitative indicators often require (over)simplifying complex and dynamic water governance systems (Ioris, Hunter, and Walker 2008). Consequently, aspects that are hard to measure, or hard to quantify, such as informal governance practices, are neglected (e.g. Lachavanne and Juge 2009 ). Furthermore, gaps in data often limit the applicability and information value for different case study areas.

Schneider_Fig3_Against this background, our goal is to present a conceptual and methodological approach for an interdisciplinary sustainability assessment for water governance systems – based on what we call the sustainability wheel – and its application in the Crans-Montana-Sierre region of Switzerland, the case study area of the MontanAqua project (Weingartner et al. 2010). For this purpose, we took the basic ideas of the two approaches described above and combined them in a way that would allow the evaluation of the water governance system through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary assessment.

In this article, we use the term water governance system in a broad sense. Water governance systems are understood to include social practices and institutions, as well as biophysical aspects and processes. When using the term water resource systems, we only refer to the biophysical aspects and processes.

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