Field Notes September 24th 2022
Text and Photographs by Antje Scharenberg

Hydro Ecologies


When I moved to Zurich, one of the first things I noticed was that – at least at first glance – water seemed to be abundant here. Through more than 1.200 wells around the city, clean drinking water is accessible to everyone across the city at all times of the day. Wells can be found in the most unlikely places, including in the middle of the forests on the hills surrounding the city’s edges.

Many of these wells are decorated with pretty woodcarvings, while the designs of others offer drinking water not only to humans but also to companion species, who can quench their thirst from a special fixture at the bottom: a more-than-human-serving well, so to speak. Pigeons, too, drink from these wells, as we found out during our field trip.

Wells, however, are only one of the ways in which Zurich may be thought of as an aquatic city. Water in all its “more-than-wet” states of excess (Steinberg and Peters, 2019) wraps itself tightly around town throughout the seasons, with thick fog covering the city in the autumn or burying it under dozens of centimetres of snow in the winter. Throughout summer and spring, social life gathers around the shores of different bodies of water, including several rivers (such as the Limmat, the Sihl, and the Glatt) and lakes (Zurichsee, Katzensee, and Greifensee) located in close proximity to the city of Zurich. On the national level, with more than 1.500 bodies of water, including lakes, rivers and glaciers, Switzerland holds an impressive 6% of Europe’s total sweet water reserves while only covering a mere 0.4% of the continent’s surface – a fact that certainly contributes to Switzerland’s national narrative as a country of alleged water abundance.

Yet, this picturesque image of Switzerland and Zurich as water-abundant ecologies start to get cracks with the ever-accelerating effects of climate change. With glaciers melting, summers problematically dry and winters increasingly rainy, water shortages may well become a problem in the near future, as an article in DIE ZEIT as well as the Swiss federal water report 2022 recently pointed out. Increasingly, the ZEIT journalist writes, political decisions will have to be made about whom water belongs to – “the fish in the Rhein or the potatoes in the field?” Indeed, freshwater is needed not only by aquatic species but also by the shipping or agricultural industries where farmers, for instance, see themselves forced to kill cattle prematurely because of dry fields and a subsequent lack of food. At the same time, environmental actors raise critical questions about how much water should be used for hydroelectric energy production. In other words, what will likely be abundant here soon is not the water itself but water struggles.

Figure 1: Limmat river with swimming fish

Being fascinated by the aquatic facets of this country, as a water enthusiast and ocean activism scholar, I could not help but pay particular attention to how the different waterways running through Zurich shape and organise the city’s hybrid ecology and socio-political life. What, I asked myself, would it mean to encounter Zurich through an aquatic lens? Indeed, what if we consider the city not only as a hybrid but as a specific socio-political hydro-ecology? In the three small vignettes that follow, I want to suggest that we may engage with Zurich’s waterways in at least three different ways: as an epistemology, as a politics, and as a hybrid ecology.

Given my particular interest in water, I was very happy to discover that the first stop of our field trip on Thursday evening immediately took us to the river Sihl. Here, we met with local artistic researchers and theatre practitioners Jonas Gillmann, Seraina Dür and Flurina Gradin, who invited us to explore the environment around the river and the city’s main train station through different performative and sensing practices.

For instance, one exercise involved experiencing the river through our bodies, imagining what it may feel like to be a tree with its roots in the earth connecting to the underground river. We were also invited to connect to different affective associations that emerged from closely observing the river, including “joy” (in memory of swimming here only a few weeks earlier) or “cold” (relating to the actual experience of being at the river on a rather chilly September evening).

Thus, enacting these sensations as we silently walked along the river’s shore towards Zurich’s Postbrücke, we began to pay closer attention to what it could feel like to be the river.

In this process, I noticed how I became suddenly attentive to previously unnoticed phenomena taking place around us, including breeding birds’ nests in the riverbed, the Sihl’s changing currents and grey herons with their impressively wide wingspan flying by overhead.

Figure 2: View of the Sihl from Zurich's Postbrücke.

Another particularly insightful way of experiencing the city from the view of the river was to approach it from different perspectives across space and time. This view was enabled by our walking tour guides’ use of a digital image-sharing tool that allowed us to view the river not only as it was flowing by right in front of and underneath us, as we were looking down on it from the Postbrücke. Viewing different photos on our smartphones while actually being at the river shore in the heart of the city centre allowed us to compare this immediate view with the river’s past and possible future: It took us to its spring in the Druisberg Mountain; underwater, where we could see what the river looks like from the perspective of the “Nase” (Chondrostoma nasus, one of the local endangered species of fish); and back in time to when there was a flood in 1910 in the very place we were standing in the here and now.

Touring the river’s ecological history was a powerful reminder of the river’s agency. Rather than considering it merely as a naturalized obstacle to cross over, forget or something to “manage”, we were able to begin to dwell in and acknowledge the river’s role within and beyond the urban environment in all its mesmerising complexity.

Figure 3: The Sihl just before flowing underneath the Postbrücke and the central station.

These exercises of perceiving the urban environment from the perspective of the river Sihl nicely connected to some of the books I have recently been reading as part of my current research project at the University of St. Gallen, which investigates what it means for civil society actors to act politically at sea, notably Bodies of Water by Astrida Neimanis (2017), Waves of Knowing by Karin Amimoto Ingersoll (2016) and Wild Blue Media by Melody Jue (2020).

In these works, the authors demonstrate how thinking (with) different bodies of water opens up new epistemic possibilities that challenge modernity’s “terracentric normative ideal”
(Peters et al., 2018, p.2). Neimanis’ work, for instance, reminds us how water, like no other element, “ties human beings into the world around them”, demonstrating that a phenomenology of water – “from the oceans that surround us to the water that makes up most of our bodies” (2017) – may lead to new ways of looking at the world that connects rather than separates us from the natural environment.

What, then, I wondered, might it mean to think and live with rather than merely managing, allocating and treating their urban water as a resource, in a similar way perhaps to how people living at the Rhône are organising themselves politically around their river, or how a river in New Zealand, which the Māori regard as their ancestor, has been granted political rights?

While walking along different waterways, I was excited to find out that my fellow field trippers Sophie Gosselin and Federico Luisetti had already written about and were occupied by similar questions. For the case of Zurich, our guide Flurina Gradin reminded us that the river actually flows through the train station as we went further underground on the escalators. On a fictional image, she showed us a very concrete suggestion of what a river-friendly design of the central station, which connects rather than separates urban dwellers from local waterways may look like.

I very much liked this thought experiment of asking what it would mean to integrate the river into the central station rather than making it invisible by tugging it away under the tracks or seeing it merely as an obstacle to be crossed or overcome through human-made infrastructures. How, I wondered, would the space’s human and non-human effects, politics and socialites change if the river was right there, next to the train tracks, for everyone to see? What if we could always smell, watch and be (with) the river from within the heart of the city’s main transport infrastructures? The question has stuck with me ever since and I am looking at Zurich main station from a different perspective now every time I take a train.

As a social movement scholar, a second water-related issue that particularly interested me throughout our field trip was water’s role in the context of political tensions, conflicts and struggles.

Of course, as different scholars have shown, activists, local communities and social movements are struggling with issues such as shortage of and access to water everywhere around the world. Zurich makes no exception here. In fact, all across Switzerland, access to lakeshores has been a hotly contested topic in recent years. What I found particularly fascinating in the national Swiss and local Zurich context, however, is that public access to lake shores is a political struggle involving different kinds of actors from across the political spectrum.

A first example of this was a local dispute, Rony Emmenegger explained to us after we arrived at the Zurich Lake on the third day of our field trip. Across the lake from where we were standing on its Western shore, Swiss national icon and global tennis star Roger Federer had announced building property directly at the lakeshore in the city of Rapperswil-Jona in 2019.

As public broadcaster SRF reported, this local conflict revealed a very Swiss problem: on the one hand, Swiss cantons are famously known for trying to accommodate the extravagant wishes of those “who can afford it”, as one commentator put it; on the other, lake shores are considered by many as a kind of commons or public good. Federer’s plans are vocally opposed, in this ongoing dispute, by a Geneva-based organisation called “Rives Publiques”, who have been mobilising to make Swiss waterways publicly accessible all across the country since 2013.

Figure 4: View of Zurich lake from the left lakeshore.

Across the lake, in the city of Zurich, we met another actor fighting for the same goal, albeit with somewhat different motivations. Here, the “IG Seepärke Zurich”, a coalition of businesspeople, architects, local politicians and actors from the tourism industry, argues that the city’s quality of life on the left lakeshore is disturbed by too much traffic and too many parking lots – and proposes the vision of a recreational park landscape that runs all around the lake shore.

Their vision also includes proposals to make the lakeshore more “attractive” for tourists and the local population, including building a lakeside restaurant at the Bürkliplatz, a pedestrian footbridge and a sculpture exhibition. On their website, the group describes itself as a “driver of ideas and inspiration of a debate on the “Aufwertung” [which may be translated here as either “upgrade” or “gentrification”] of the public space along the lakeshore”. The group claims it is open to collaborating with the local Green Party as well as all parties sharing their vision if it comes to a referendum on these proposals.

As we walk further along the lakeshore towards Rote Fabrik, a left-wing social and culture centre, we encounter yet another radically different vision of a publicly accessible lake shore, which is less oriented towards feelings of well-being than towards conflict and political struggle.

For instance, near Rote Fabrik, we pass by a feminist campaign banner against a reform of the national pension scheme which would disadvantage women. The flag is well positioned along a popular walking route at the lake shore. Here, the lake shore becomes a space of public expression and political struggle.

Once we arrive at Rote Fabrik, we also find printed flyers of the “Linkes Seeufer für Alle” campaign (which translates as “Left Lake Shore For All”, and can be understood as a play on words that brings together both the geography and the political orientation of the campaign). This group was formed to defend the left lake shore against further privatisation and the building of luxury flats on the shore of the surrounding borough of Zurich Wollishofen. Interestingly, this campaign’s website explicitly states that their vision of the lakeshore is one that is not only publicly accessible and ecologically sustainable but also freed of commercial use – thus implying an understanding of the lakeshore not only as a public but also as a political space.

Figure 5: Zurich's lake shore as a site of struggle.

Finally, walking around the lake, we find not only the remains of present but also past struggles. Rony Emmenegger explained that the lake also played a role in other forms of political conflict than the ones that may occupy us today. On our walk, we pass by several bunkers around the central lake shore, visibly reminding us that the lake functioned as a strategic site during WWII. This was one example of how humans turn nature into agents of war (in this case: arming water).

Nature, here, was employed at the service of war as natural and national border struggles and frontiers overlapped. Of course, according to the book Arming Mother Nature by Jacob Darwin Hamblin (2013), which Rony recommended to me on our walk along the bunkers, this phenomenon is no exception in our historical relationship with natural sites, including waterways; it is an ongoing aspect of different places’ hybrid ecology.

Once sensitised to Zurich’s water struggles, I began to pay closer attention to water’s crucial role in the city’s makeup and became more aware of its various hybrid entanglements. One exciting aspect of this water-focused viewpoint was that it gave way to see not only the role played by global climate-related phenomena such as the rain and the different water states across the seasons or the bigger bodies of water like the city’s major rivers and the lake. Paying close attention to water in the town also led me to notice the smaller bodies of water that played a crucial part in Zurich’s hybrid hydro-ecology. Indeed, the last day of our field trip was a powerful reminder of how humans struggle with and for water not only among each other (as described in the previous section) but also with other species. It reveals the city’s waterways as cohabitation spaces, which humans share with other species.

Figure 6: Humans/ non-human encounters at the Limmat river.

My favourite example of these more-than-human water struggles revolved around a kind of “fake puddle” that Zurich’s pest control team created to manage the population of invasive tiger mosquitos, as we learned on our last day of fieldwork.

On Sunday morning, our group met at the central bus station, which, at first sight, may not strike the untrained eye as a particularly interesting habitat. On the contrary, we learned about several species who call the bus station their home – for better or worse from a human health hazard-sensitive point of view – including the previously mentioned tiger mosquitos, cockroaches, ticks and various species of birds.

Here, where you may expect a more high-tech way of monitoring and managing mosquito populations (as Federico Luisetti pointed out), humans mimicked small stagnant water bodies – the mosquito’s natural breeding habitat. They did this in a seemingly improvised move by placing black buckets with water all around the station to encourage the mosquitos to lay their eggs there – and subsequently, be able to remove them to keep the population under control. As an aside, sparrows and other birds subvert this human intervention by interpreting it as a welcome drinking opportunity.

But sparrows and tiger mosquitos are not the only species giving the pest control team a hard time. After our group walked across the street towards the pointed peninsular, which marks the meeting of the rivers Sihl and Limmat (a place that allegedly inspired James Joyce during his time in Zurich), we are left with a scene that nicely summarises our entire field trip. Here, we learn about another species humans have to share their local waterways with – rats. In an amusing move of fate, our talk about rats-cause health hazards gets interrupted as three near-naked human bathers distract some of our group by jumping into the Limmat on the other side of the water. Their unlikely presence in the river on a grey September day was a beautiful reminder of how humans are but one amongst many species in Zurich’s hybrid hydro-ecology.

Amimoto Ingersoll, K.E. (2016) Waves of knowing: a seascape epistemology. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hamblin, J.D. (2013) Arming Mother Nature: the birth of catastrophic environmentalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jue, M. (2020) Wild blue media: thinking through seawater. Durham: Duke University Press.

Neimanis, A. (2017) Bodies of water: posthuman feminist phenomenology. London: Bloomsbury.

Peters, K. and Steinberg, P. (2019) ‘The ocean in excess: Towards a more-than-wet ontology’, Dialogues in Human Geography, 9(3), pp. 293–307. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2043820619872886.



Essential references 


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