BORIS Theses

BORIS Theses
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Fragmentation and integration in Swiss water governance: Understanding a complex system through the study of organizational networks

Angst, Mario (2019). Fragmentation and integration in Swiss water governance: Understanding a complex system through the study of organizational networks. (Thesis). Universität Bern, Bern

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This thesis undertakes a tour d'horizon of Swiss water governance. What can be said overall after it? In sum, three key insights stand out. These are the high potential for fragmentation among high-visibility, high-conflict issues surrounding agriculture, biodiversity and hydropower, the key integrative role of administrative agencies, especially on the cantonal level, and the essential role of local level implementation. All three articles in this thesis provide evidence that Swiss water governance has two distinct modes of operation in terms of visibility and conflict. On the one hand, a lot of water governance is "quiet politics'' related to the implementation and upkeep of water supply, waste water management and flood prevention measures and infrastructure. These areas are highly technical and relatively uncontroversial among the self-selecting set of actors involved. On the other hand, there is a second mode of more controversial issues, which are also more strongly reflected in media attention. At the heart of the matter lies the unwelcome fact that there are zero-sum games surrounding some water issues. Protecting aquatic biodiversity cannot avoid clashing with a reliance on agricultural methods based on pesticide use. Freeing up riverbeds and streams at some point comes at the cost of agricultural land. Large-scale hydropower concepts cannot be built outside of the landscape they are situated in and completely without impacting the dynamics of aquatic ecosystems. To overcome conflicts in these areas, administrative agencies have emphasized synergies to resolve the perception of zero-sum games. Revitalization projects are the prime example of this strategy. Arguments in favor of such projects sometimes go to great lengths in emphasizing how they do not only serve nature protection purposes, but can also improve flood prevention and increase the quality of life for residents by creating an inspiring landscape for recreational purposes. However, strategies of highlighting synergies can only go so far. Tellingly, many revitalization projects in Switzerland have tackled not necessarily areas where ecological improvements would have been maximized, but areas of least resistance, which in the Swiss context often means areas of a minimum amount of confrontation with agricultural interests. In the future, such areas will become more scarce. A key challenge for integration will thus relate to integrating agricultural organizations into the water governance system. In order to further improve the situation of aquatic habitats in Switzerland, any other way seems unrealistic. As agricultural interests are deeply entrenched within the political system, a more confrontational approach is only likely to lead to a stalemate and a patchwork of ecological improvement measures. Interestingly, also the first mode of operation in Swiss water governance, the more technocratic area of water supply and waste water management has been in more flux recently. It will need to find answers to the two key challenges of drought and micropollution in the future. Both require integration, sometimes involving an engagement with more controversial issues. How the challenges posed by increasing drought risks and micropollution are addressed in the future will thus be informative in order to judge the adaptive capacity of the Swiss water governance system, and the area of "quiet politics'' identified in this thesis will be crucial in this regard. There is good reason to be optimistic about this capacity for adaptation, not least due to the entrenched role of reputed cantonal level administrators and the presence of low-conflict local level networks within the areas of water supply and wastewater management. In overcoming fragmentation, cantonal level administrators emerge time and time again as a key player in Swiss water governance. They stand out as a hub connecting lower-level actors such as municipalities and regional service providers either to other lower-level actors or higher-level ones such as federal administrators. However, this thesis also shows that the networks of local level actors consisting of municipalities, service providers, and engineering and consulting firms are key in getting things done in the end. The studies assembled within this thesis indicate that they are part of distinct governance subsystems, integrate issues through their often generalist approaches to water governance within their territory, and show remarkable capacity for self-organization. The preceding three key points about Swiss water governance harbour theoretical insights for natural resource governance systems elsewhere. Much of natural resource governance is implementation and "quiet politics'', such as the water supply and flood control subsystems in Swiss water governance. In these non-adversarial areas, phenomena such as actor coalitions based on belief differences or "devil shifts'' are not likely to occur. Instead, as the regional water supply management network studied in the third article of this thesis shows, actors have a high capacity to organize and overcome fragmentation in such areas. In dealing with such subsystems, it thus seems advisable to establish conditions that retain a maximum amount of agency for organizations to self-organize. The most compelling argument for anarchy as a model for network governance thus somewhat ironically applies to cases where a degree of order in terms of a non-conflictive subsystem exists. Another general insight of this thesis is that integration comes in different forms. On the actor level, it can range from explicit coordination to providing bridges between different communities and access to outside knowledge. On an institutional level it can range from legislative, administrative or executive action, such as policy integration, to organizing venues for exchange, such as policy forums. If integration comes in different forms, the same can be said about fragmentation. Some of it is caused by the slow speed of adaption of a governance system to new challenges or lack of knowledge about relations between issues. Such fragmentation is easier to address. The more problematic kind of fragmentation has a root in more fundamental conflicts of values and interests. Setting up more institutional venues and disseminating knowledge can only go so far in overcoming it. In the end, there is no other legitimate and long-term effective way of resolving such fragmentation than the appropriate level of democratically legitimate debate and decision-making procedure. Social science based on complexity thinking can play an important role in this by informing debates and empowering actors based on an understanding of social systems appropriate to their nature.

Item Type: Thesis
Dissertation Type: Cumulative
Date of Defense: 4 April 2019
Subjects: 300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 320 Political science
Institute / Center: 03 Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences > Social Sciences > Institute of Political Science
Depositing User: Hammer Igor
Date Deposited: 29 Apr 2021 08:35
Last Modified: 29 May 2021 00:30

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