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Linking sustainable practices throughout Europe

► Bisses, a traditional irrigation system from the Alps, candidat to intangible heritage

Rural topic(s): Local ecological knowledge

Type: Narrative story

Date of writing: August 8, 2022


The bisses (irrigation channels) and irrigated meadows of the Alpine mountains – especially in Switzerland – are an example of gravity-fed irrigation, the tradition of which dates back to the 13th century.

Through canals (wooden or dug), water from the glaciers is transported to the hillsides, meadows and valleys.

These irrigation systems and the knowledge associated with these practices (collective tasks of canal maintenance, water rights, etc.) illustrate how the inhabitants have adapted to the climatic constraints in a rather dry region.

The bisses not only contribute to a greater agricultural and wild biodiversity, but also allow the development of the mountain forest, the fight against fires (filling of aquifers and greater humidity) as well as the enrichment of the soil with minerals from the glaciers.


However, competition due to water scarcity, the difficulty of generational renewal among farmers, the physical constraints of the system – in the face of sprinkler irrigation – are all challenges for the future of the bisses.

In order to fight against this phenomenon and to promote this heritage which has created real cultural landscapes, actors from several Alpine countries (universities, landscape foundation, communities of irrigators, local authorities) propose to register “traditional irrigation in Europe” as an intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO.

The page “Irrigation landscapes, a precious heritage” from which the video is taken, illustrates in a didactic way the functioning of the bisses.



Fondation suisse pour la protection et l’aménagement du paysage : Le paysage de pentes irriguées par ruissellement des coteaux ensoleillés du Haut-Valais – un patrimoine culturel d’importance européenne ;L’irrigation traditionnelle en Europe – candidature auprès de l’UNESCO

Oehler, J. The UNESCO World Heritage Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch – protecting the cultural landscape by preserving the traditional irrigation system in the Upper Valais. eco.mont – Volume 14, Number 1, January 2022. doi.org/10.1553/eco.mont-14-1s33


Scale of intervention : Regional

Keywords: water management, mountain, traditional knowledge, safeguard of knowledge, knowledge transmission, cultural heritage

Places: Switzerland

Actors: farmer, municipality, association