IWRM Lessons from 169 Years of Flood Policies in Switzerland

IWRM Lessons from 169 Years of Flood Policies in Switzerland

Integrated Water Resources Management and Policy Integration: Lessons from 169 Years of Flood Policies in Switzerland


In times of increasing pressures on water resources, the integrated management of the resource is a central policy objective. While there exists encompassing research about the concept of integrated water resources management (IWRM), much remains to be studied regarding the integration of water-related policies. Water resources management profits when policy actors coordinate their demands and actions across policy sectors, territorial entities, and decision-making levels within a water basin. However, actors are bound by the policy framework, which organizes water resources management in defined sectors and, over time, develop into independent and specialized policy pillars. A growing number of policies increases the need to integrate those policies over time following the institutional resources regime (IRR) framework. However, an increasing number of policies also proves challenging in establishing an integrated, coherent regime compliant with IWRM. In this study, we analyze flood risk management policies and find an almost exponential increase in policies over time, while flood risks and damage have not decreased in parallel. We address this empirical puzzle with an in-depth analysis of the design of Swiss flood risk management policies over time. To this end, we survey the opinion of 146 flood experts on the importance of ten policy design indicators in three flood-prone regions in Switzerland. Flood risk management experts attribute particular importance to policy designs characterized by integration, a sufficient budget for policy implementation, and coercive instruments and sanctions. We then compare survey results to the ways in which Swiss policies have been designed in legislation across policy sectors related to flood risk management over the last 169 years. We find that policy designs follow a national policy style. Placing these results in local contexts, we explain why the design of policies represents both a challenge and opportunity for policy-makers involved in flood risk management.


Understanding the policy framework and the ways in which public policies evolve over time constitutes a prerequisite for successful and adaptive water governance, which has become increasingly important in times of climate change and related flood risks [70]. Today, water management rests on IWRM as a guiding principle in many countries, including Switzerland [73]. IWRM centers the integration of different water interests, but fails to recognize that the need to integrate accrues over time as policy portfolios evolve. We connect scholarship on IWRM with insights from public policy research as a means to shed light on the relationship between the evolution and integration of public policies. In this study, we link IWRM with the literatures on (a) path dependency [39], (b) IRR [13], and (c) policy design [42,51].

This article’s goal is to cross-fertilize IWRM with public policy scholarship in order to strengthen the currently underdeveloped aspect of policy integration in IWRM. We argue that from existing public policy theories we can learn about the integration of different interests and the sound management of water resources in IWRM. Public policy literature can contribute to IWRM through its insights into policy stability, extent, and coherence; as well as through the insight that policy designs constitute an important point of leverage for adaptive policy in IWRM. Therefore, including the policy dimension into IWRM provides an important added value to the concept of IWRM.

Our analysis of Swiss flood risk management policies since the mid-19th century reveals that policies tend to remain in place, whereby only few policies are terminated over time. As a potential consequence of this policy stickiness, we observe that Swiss flood policy portfolios grow in extent over time. 


 IWRM; policy integration; policy design over time; policy design preferences; policy indicators; flood risk management

LINK TO COMPLETE OPEN ACCESS PAPER Integrated Water Resources Management and Policy Integration: Lessons from 169 Years of Flood Policies in Switzerland

Florence Metz 1,2,*and Anik Glaus

1 Natural Resource Policy Group, ETH Zürich, Universitätstrasse 22, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland

2 Institute of Political Science, University of Bern, Fabrikstrasse 8, 3013 Bern, Switzerland

3Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Bern, Hochschulstrasse 4, 3012 Bern, Switzerland

*Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.

Received: 18 April 2019 / Accepted: 30 May 2019 / Published: 5 June 2019