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Water scarcity: design of the MontanAqua project

In this article, Flurina Schneider discusses the outline and structure of the transdisciplinary MontanAqua project.
The transdisciplinary MontanAqua project was part of a Swiss national research programme on sustainable water management that aimed at solving problems of national importance through coordinated research efforts. The main objective was to develop strategies for moving towards more sustainable water governance in the Swiss Alps, in particular in the study region of Crans-Montana-Sierre.

Outline and structure of the transdisciplinary project

The research design basically consisted of the following steps and research questions: First, the current water situation in the study region was investigated. How much water is available? How much water is being used? How are decisions on water distribution and use taken? Second, participatory scenario workshops were conducted in order to identify the stakeholders’ visions of regional development and sustainable water futures. Third, the water situation in 2050 was simulated by modelling the evolution of water resources and water use and by reflecting on the institutional aspects. Finally, options for more sustainable water management were identified. During all these steps, the researchers collaborated with the local stakeholders.

The project was divided into three – rather disciplinary-oriented – work packages (WPs) aiming to provide knowledge on the available water resources, the water use system, and the socio-economic structures.

  • WP1 aimed at analysing current and future available water resources. It included two PhD students and two postdocs, each focusing on different questions: The first PhD modelled water availability of the study region, while the second studied the relationship between water availability and land uses. The post-docs investigated the role of the Plaine Morte glacier and the behaviour of its karstic environment (ie underground water transfer system).

  • WP2 aimed at analysing and simulating current and future water use. In this WP, a PhD student was analysing the main water uses (ie drinking water, energy production, agri- and viticulture, and tourism) and their spatial print for the present and the future.

  • WP3 aimed at investigating the socio-economic structures and decision-making processes. In this WP, a PhD student was studying how water management practices in the study area are working, from the decision-making processes down to concrete actions.

In addition, to facilitate successful inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration and data integration, the project contained a synthesis work package (SP), which was responsible for enhancing data integration and learning between all involved actors. The post-doc researcher leading the SP was also responsible for generating participatory future visions and identification of more sustainable water management options. A key element of the SP was the stakeholder group RegiEau, which consisted of key representatives of owners, managers, users, and pressure groups related to water and landscape: representatives of the communes (mostly the presidents), the canton (administration and parliament), water management associations, agriculture, viticulture, hydropower, tourism, and landscape protection.

Overview of the transdisciplinary process

The transdisciplinary process already started at the proposal elaboration phase. The principle investigators, researchers in the social and natural sciences, engaged in intense discussions regarding suitable concepts for bridging different perspectives. They later reported that they have never before invested so much time and energy in writing a research proposal (totally 6 meetings), but that this joint effort laid the groundwork for subsequent successful collaboration and transdisciplinary co-production of knowledge. As part of this process, they also organised a stakeholder workshop in order to identify and integrate the perspectives of the regional actors and to guarantee a proper focus and a sound ‘real-world’ orientation of the research project. In this workshop, the principle investigators presented their general research ideas and discussed them with the attending stakeholders. As a consequence, they refined the research proposal (eg less focus on economics, and more on conflicts and power). However, as both researchers and stakeholder later said, the workshop was particularly important for establishing trust, social relations, and commitment. The researchers felt confirmed in the design of their research proposal (‘We realised that our research is really relevant for the local actors. This gave us a boost of energy.’), and the stakeholders felt they were being taken seriously (‘When you organised the workshop, it became clear that you really care for our concerns.’).

What are your thoughts about this process? Share them in the comments section below.

Author: PD Dr. Flurina Schneider

Further reading

‘Insight video’ by Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)

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