IEM (Integrales Einzugsgebietsmanagement / Integrative river basin management) – a fundamental planning tool for the rivers of Switzerland.

Definition: The approach of integrated management of water in catchment areas – watershed management for short – as defined for Switzerland, is an intersectoral approach to managing water resources, water bodies and water infrastructures. It is based on long-term goals and proceeds in a continuous cycle of planning, implementation and monitoring processes. The reference area is the watershed or catchment area (in general smaller than a “river catchment” as intended by the European Union’s Water Framework Directive, EU-WFD).


1. What are the main objectives of IEM?

Watershed Management is an approach that promotes water management based on the principles of sustainable development considering all activities implemented by humans for the protection of waters, use of water and provision of protection against water hazards from an overall perspective.

The main objective is to allow, for a given catchment area, an efficient and targeted water management through regional coordination, transparent balancing of interests and clear priority setting which covers both protection and user interests. This especially when there is, or may be in the future, a need for coordination between the sectors and within the catchment area, beyond the political/administrative boundaries (e.g. conflicts of interests, dependencies, synergies…).

Watershed Management is built on long-term goals. The “specific objectives” (e.g. sufficient accessibility; stable bed load balance; good interconnection of habitats…) may vary according to the situation of the considered catchment area and have to be defined individually (vision and long term development goals for each Watershed Management).

2. How are river protection strategies and plans addressed in this tool?

Watershed Management is built on long-term goals. They are set at the beginning of the process (vision and development concept) and form the basis for the planning and the definition of a specific action plan. This part of the “tool” that can be defined as the “strategic planning process” of Watershed Management is oriented according to the local conditions and takes into account the objectives of other activities with spatial relevance, the principles of protection and use and the sectoral sub goals stipulated in the legislation or addressed in specific strategies. Therefore, the action plan incorporates existing master and spatial planning and all relevant sectoral strategic planning (e.g. revitalisation, fish migration…).

3. How is administrative cooperation organized across all river related disciplines?

Article 76 of the Federal Constitution defines the competences for water management. On the one hand, the confederation legislates on water protection, on ensuring appropriate residual flow, on hydraulic engineering and the safety of dams. On the other hand, the confederation lays out principles concerning the conservation and exploitation of water resources, the use of water for the production of energy and for cooling purposes, as well as other measures affecting the water-cycle. However, according to the principle of subsidiarity, the main authorities of water resource management are the cantons: they are responsible for issuing water use licences and concessions, except where water is abstracted in transboundary waters (in that case the Confederation has jurisdiction). They are also responsible for flood protection and Water Protection Act enforcement. Finally, water supply and sanitation services are municipal responsibilities.

So it is clear that a large number of authorities and organizational structures are dealing with water related issues. This demands a proper coordination especially as in many cases the current small-scale, sectoral structures are reaching their limits.

In this context, to ensure that, whenever necessary or reasonable, existing interactions, synergies and conflicts are properly taken into account some new legal requirements were introduced in the water protection ordinance amendment of 2011 demanding whenever necessary, a coordination of water resource management related activities, in some case explicitly within a catchment area, which in fact corresponds to the principles of watershed management as defined for Switzerland. An implementation guide on revitalisation concretizes the obligation for coordination of water resource management related activities (Art. 46 WPO). It sets out in which situations coordination is necessary, how to coordinate the relevant activities within a watershed and what the competent authority’s requirements are.

4. Which support is given through the federal offices for canton or regional bodies who want to implement an IEM?

A National Working Group on Integrated Watershed Management was created in late 2008 in the context of Water Agenda 21 - the stakeholder network of water management in Switzerland. In 2011 it published the guiding principles for watershed management in Switzerland and supports the actors with further analysis and conceptual tools, e.g. factsheets on specific conflict situations.  As part of this group and in the context of its competences, The Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) has been active for more than ten years in supporting the implementation of watershed management, by promoting a wide range of conceptual and strategic studies and analysis, e.g. the publication of a practical guide in 2012 that concretizes the principles and provides assistance in relation to the methodical procedure by means of options with concrete illustrative case studies or the publication in 2013 of an implementation guide on coordination of water management related activities as required by the 2011 Water Protection Ordinance amendment of Article 46. Among these conceptual supporting tools, FOEN supported several pilot projects on the cantonal level during a period of about 10 years in order to gain practical experience.

However, successful implementation requires committed stakeholders at all levels who direct their activities towards jointly developed common goals at watershed level and are ready to put aside particular interests.

5. Which aims are reached (or should be reached) through the implementation in Switzerland? (in relation to the Water Framework Directive in the EU states)

There is broad consensus on watershed management principles among all water related actors. However, a legally binding management of all water management activities in a river catchment area comparable to the Water Framework Directive has no political chance in Switzerland. So on the basis of various studies and analyses, Switzerland opted for a pragmatic approach of integrated water management in the watershed that better fits with the Swiss reality (subsidiarity principle, competences of cantons for water management, small and diversified structures,…). The defined approach is not legally binding at national level and aims at being flexible and adaptive in its application in order to best fit with the different regional realities and structures, thus allowing efficient and targeted water management.

The aim is not to obtain a nationwide application integrating all sectors and (potential) interests in all catchment areas, but rather to apply the approach when there is a need for coordination between sectors and within a watershed. In these cases the idea is to optimise the spatial and sectoral integration as necessary by considering, at least in a first step, only the relevant activities and the optimal catchment area to cover all relevant interactions and allow further development and adaptations in term of space, content and organisation (i.e. integrating other interests or a further area) in a next cycle. Some Cantons have introduced it in their legislations and others apply the corresponding principles with success.


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