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Waale, Suonen, Wasserleiten

May 05, 2022 / Mirjam Jakob, CIPRA International
Vital for the cultural landscape and biodiversity, and the epitome of community resource management: an application to UNESCO aims to turn traditional irrigation practices into an intangible cultural heritage asset.
Image caption:
A bisse (old irrigation channel) in Valais/CH. © Switzerland Tourism (André Meier) and Swiss Landscape Conservation Foundation

Local inhabitants have over the centuries developed sophisticated irrigation systems in Alpine regions such as the Vinschgau/I, the Rhone Valley/CH or the Briançonnais/F. The Waalen, Suonen and Wasserleiten, as they are called in South Tyrol/I or Valais/CH, are canal systems that run for kilometres, helping to transport water from high up in the mountains for distribution to meadows, vineyards and gardens.

Today, technical watering systems have replaced traditional irrigation in many places. The old practices and their maintenance are too time-consuming and labour-intensive. But traditional irrigation is of great importance for biodiversity, landscape and social integration. The spectacular construction, collective water management and long-established techniques reflect an aspect of cultural history and contribute decisively to regional identity. “The communal responsibility for water conduits and irrigation water can serve as a model for the sustainable use of a scarce resource” adds Karina Liechti (Swiss Landscape Conservation Foundation), describing research in this field.

Seven European countries, including Germany, Italy, Austria and Switzerland, have submitted an application to UNESCO so as to preserve this knowledge that has grown over generations. The knowledge, technology and organisation of traditional irrigation in Europe should thus find a place on the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.

Sources and further information: (de, fr, it), (de, it), (en)