Swiss Water Protection

A historical development of Swiss Water Protection since 1800

The timeline shows four storylines from a socio-political, technical, ecological and actors perspective that illustrate the key elements in the area of Swiss water protection since 1800, based on a literature review of various publications and interviews with experts.

1800-05-01 06:22:55

Early 19th Century Floodings

During the 19th century, several extreme floodings took place in Switzerland and damaged or destroyed infrastructure, livelihoods and homes across the country.

1800-05-31 00:00:00

Interpretation Patterns of Catastrophes

According to literature of that time, the interpretation of the causes for floodings and other catastrophes varied from religious beliefs to nature-related explanations.

1800-06-01 00:00:00

Water as a Source of Healing

In this time, bath houses and spa resorts had become increasingly popular and were considered highly beneficial to human health. They also served as important places for social interaction, especially for the upper class.

1800-12-31 00:00:00

Timber Rafting on Swiss Waterways

In the 19th century, timber rafting was the main way to transport timber in Switzerland: Several logs were tied together as a raft and shipped on waterways. However, the practice and logging itself caused various negative impacts and thus was criticised and increasingly regulated over time.

1807-03-01 04:53:48

Linth River Correction: Causes

The changing natural course and accumulation of bedload in the Linth river interfered increasingly with human livelihoods: infrastructure and agricultural areas were destroyed by flooding and swamps started to build, allowing for mosquitos and thus diseases (Malaria!) to enter the region. As in many other cases in Switzerland, the correction of the river was engineered to solve these problems.

1807-07-01 00:00:00

Linth River Correction: Technical Measures

Under the lead of the revolutionary politician Hans Conrad Escher, the Linth river was canalised and rerouted between the lakes of Zurich and Walen. The examplary hydroengineering project was considered one of the greatest welfare acts of its time, saving the regions population and their livelihoods from the desperate situation.

1823-01-01 00:00:00

First Steamboat on Lake Geneva

Lakes and rivers were used mainly as a way of transport for navigation. With the technological advancements the first steamboat in Switzerland called Guillaume Tell was touring on Lake Geneva from the year 1823 (BWG 2003: 20).

1825-05-01 21:28:58

"Sick Lakes" due to Eutrophication

As more and more lakes in Switzerland suffered from eutrophication, social awareness regarding the polluted state of Swiss waters increased.

1840-07-01 02:41:23

Pollution caused by Textile Industry

As silk production boomed in Switzerland in the context of industrialisation, water pollution caused by untreated factory waste water increased significantly.

1840-10-01 17:53:34

European Hygienist Movement

European movements encouraged more hygienic sanitary conditions to combat the spreading of diseases and helped increase reform pressure for the construction of sewage systems.

1843-01-01 00:00:00

Early Stages of Private Water Supply Systems

The first private water supply systems were based on a wheel system connecting pipe lines with 24 fountains and were operated in Geneva from 1843 onwards. Later in 1850, the construction of the first water supply networks started. This lead to the application of the first industrially produced pipes for drainage (BWG 2003: 20).

1848-05-01 21:28:58

Growing Solidarity after Floodings

Since the foundation of the Swiss Confederation (1848), national solidarity movements as a reaction to the floodings and national catastrophes contributed to the institutional learning processes regarding the prevention of factors causing these events (Zaugg Stern 2006: 80).

1853-01-01 12:21:48

Foundation of Polytechnic Institutes

By fostering research and knowledge in the area of hydroengineering, polytechnic institutes contributed to the construction of todays water infrastructure.

1854-01-10 06:22:55

Cholera and Typhoid Fever Outbreaks

During this period the first outbreaks of Cholera and later Typhoid fever ("Typhus") were observed in Zurich due to increasing population density, poverty and deteriorated sanitary conditions. The outbreaks accelerated the municipal provisions for the rehabilitation of the existing sanitary system (Neumann et al. 2015: 407).

1854-02-28 12:21:48

First Epidemiological Studies on Cholera

In contrary to earlier beliefs, physicians like John Snow demonstrated the link between contaminated drinking water and the spreading of diseases like Cholera and later Typhoid fever.

1857-04-01 02:16:57

Hydraulic Engineering Act (WBG)

As one of the first laws on the management of waters, the hydraulic engineering act of 1857 legitimised the correction of rivers in the 19th century.

1860-03-01 04:53:48

Major River Corrections in Switzerland

As a response to the numerous floodings in the past few decades and to prevent their reoccurence, many rivers were corrected.

1863-01-01 00:00:00

The Bucket System: Zurichs first Sewers

In 1863, following a building reform and typhoid fever epidemic, the first sewage ("bucket") system was introduced in Zurich: Liquid waste was discharged through sewers, while solid waste sludge was collected in buckets and used as fertilizer.

1864-05-13 06:22:55

Arnold Bürkli as a Municipal Engineer

As a municipal engineer, Bürkli was responsible for the sewage system in Zurich and introduced the bucket system.

1867-03-01 04:53:48

Passing of the Cesspool Reform

The so called "Kloakenreform" was a municipal bill of the city of Zurich passed by its citizens and authorised the installation of the bucket system and liquid waste sewers, as enigneered by A. Bürkli (Neumann et al. 2015: 407).

1867-09-01 19:51:31

First Correction of the Jura Waters

The largest river correction project in Switzerland took place in the Jura regions, permanently changing the shape of various lakes and rivers. It was one of the first major acts of the new Confederation regarding water protection and based on the collaboration between the cantons of Bern, Waadt, Neuenburg, Freiburg and Solothurn.

1867-10-01 23:51:22

Jura Water Correction: Sustainable Opposition

Ochsenbein, member of the first federal council, argued that there was a more sustainable solution to the Jura waters correction, which would protect the peatlands in the region.

1868-04-01 13:08:26

Construction of Water Supply Infrastructure

Over several decades, water supply infrastructure for drinking water was built in more and more Swiss cities, mostly in richer or business districts. Though allowing for better protection against fires, the system was also more prone to transmit diseases.

1868-07-01 00:00:00

Swiss Access to the North Sea

Signing of the "Mannheimer Akte", a contract which allows Swiss shipping companies free access to the North Sea until today (BWG 2003: 20).

1870-01-01 00:00:00

Declining Macrophyte Population

In the Bodensee, a decline in characeae or so called macrophytes is observed over the course of the next 100 years. Eutrophication seems to be one of the main reasons causing this problem (Lang 1968 cit. In Niessen et al. 1987: 379).

1873-06-01 19:56:47

Foundation of the SVGW

The non-profit organisation "Swiss Association for the Gas and Water Industry" represents the interests, knowledge and network of Swiss water and gas supply companies and experts.

1874-11-13 08:17:56

Emergence of the Confederation in Water Governance

The newly founded Swiss Confederation progressively applied the principle of sovereignty in various areas of water governance.

1875-01-01 23:10:49

First Federal Act on Fisheries

With Art. 25 BV 1874 concerning fishery and hunting («The Confederation is authorized to make legal provisions concerning the practice of fishing (...).») the first national act on fisheries was introduced in 1875 in order to prohibit over-exploitation of fish populations. (Bundi 2008: 430)

1878-01-01 00:00:00

First Small-Scale Hydropower Stations

In 1878 the first hydropower station was constructed in St. Moritz. (BWG 2003: 20) The generated electricity powered lights in the dining and entry area of the Kulm luxury hotel. For the next few years hydropower stations were mainly used to provide energy for electric arc lights in cities. The bright lights were compared to sunlight by media and the population because of their unprecedented intensity. (Gugerli 1996: 25)

1881-03-11 04:53:48

First Water Pollution Bill of Zurich

After citizens living downstream of the city of Zurich had been complaining about water pollution, Zurich's first cantonal water pollution bill was adopted. It regulated the release of large amounts of solid and factory waste and substances endangering humans and animals. (Neumann et al. 2015: 409)

1883-08-13 23:47:34

Foundation of the SFV

The SFV (Swiss Angling Association) was founded by professional and sport fishermen who demanded more effective water protection, mostly due to economic reasons as part of their livelihood depended on it.

1883-10-01 07:51:57

Influence of Bacteriological Studies

Bacteriological studies showed an increasing pollution of Swiss waters with pathogens, caused by industrialisation and expanding sewage systems without treatment.

1885-01-01 00:00:00

Eutrophication Developments

Based on the analysis of sediments in 1982, the eutrophication history of the Lake Baldegg was recreated. It showed the course of eutrophic levels with several types of algae, starting in 1885. After the study, the lake was oxygenated and circulated to reduce eutrophication.

1885-10-01 17:53:34

Early International Agreements

In 1885 Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands concluded an agreement on fishing in the transboundary Rhine river, that limits the catch to a sustainable crop, which was a novelty in the 19th century at the time.

1885-11-01 21:24:35

Foundation of the Institute for Forestry Research, later WSL

In the history of the WSL (Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research), resp. its predecessors, the research of forestry was always connected to the area of water protection. Hydrology regarding floodings, snow and avalanches, as well as landscape planning has become the interface between the two research fields. The institute therefore contributed/s to the scientific background of water protection in the past and today.

1888-03-01 04:53:48

Second Federal Act on Fisheries

The introduction of the second act on fisheries prohibited water pollution through industrial waste which would threaten the fish and crayfish populations in rivers. This law was up until 1953 the only legal basis for water protection in Switzerland. However, due to insufficient enforcement by the responsible cantons, the act had no improving effect on the water quality (FOEN 2007: 2).

1888-03-01 04:53:48

Foundation of the Hygiene Association Zurich

In 1888 the Hygiene Association of Zurich was founded as a result of the international hygienist movement and promoted the further development of the sanitary system in Zurich. Physicians and public health experts became the new influential agents and opinion leaders. (Neumann et al. 2015: 408)

1890-03-01 04:53:48

Electrification in Switzerland

Before the first world war, hydropower plants were built at a very fast pace to provide electricity to the Swiss population. Gaining independence of foreign energy supply as well as the ongoing industrialisation were both drivers of the development.

1891-11-17 00:58:30

Electrotechnical Exhibition in Frankfurt

The electrotechnical exhibition served as a platform for demonstrating the technological progress of the time. Transmission and changing currents was now possible and thus many more sectors were now operated on electricity, generated by hydropower.

1898-10-30 23:37:34

Construction of Large-Scale Hydropower Plants

The construction of the Rheinfelden and other large-scale hydropower stations at the time encountered various challenges: legitimisation of land expropriation, resistance of fishers and rafters, technical problems and insufficient investment capital.

1900-05-01 00:26:28

Renewal of Existing Sewage Infrastructure

Previously built sewage infrastructure was renewed (ie. covered and turned into water borne sewers) in various cities, due to the fear of diseases, smells and financial deficits.

1900-05-01 21:28:58

Exploiting Hydropower as a National Duty

The exploitation of Swiss waters as a resource of electricity was increasingly framed in the populist and later nationalist discourse and equated with economic progress and independence.

1903-03-03 04:53:48

Legal Nationalisation of Hydropower

In 1916 the Confederation gained competence on the utilisation of hydropower, with the Water Rights Act (WRG), turning the exploitation of water for electricity a federal and cantonal responsibility.

1905-01-01 08:50:20

Foundation of the SHS

The non-profit organisation "Swiss Heritage Society" is dedicated to the advancement of building culture and architectural heritage in Switzerland.

1907-09-01 22:16:42

Planning a Waterway over the Splügenpass

To build a transeuropean waterway, a canal through the Splügen pass was suggested, but never built.

1909-02-01 07:19:14

Foundation of the SBN, later Pro Natura

The Swiss Association for Nature Conservation has played an important role in national nature protection and is known today as Pro Natura. (

1910-09-02 05:31:23

Foundation of the SWV

The Swiss Association for Water Managements was founded in 1910 to represent the interests of the water sector, specifically the usage of the resource water.

1912-03-01 04:53:48

Adoption of the Swiss Civil Code (Zivilgesetzbuch)

With the adoption of the civil code in 1912, property titles of water bodies were defined, transferring many from private to public status. Waste disposal, ownership and use rights for hydropower were now regulated on different levels.

1914-07-01 06:32:09

Foundation of the NOK, later Axpo

First named NOK, the electricity company was founded by several cantons in the context of the ongoing electrification in Switzerland. Until 1960, the NOKs main focus was on hydropower, but the supplier later on also accessed nuclear power and renewables. To compete internationally, NOK founded Axpo Holding AG and was renamed as Axpo (Power) AG in 2012.

1917-05-01 00:26:28

First Waste Water Treatment Plant in Switzerland

The first waste water treatment plant in Switzerland was built in 1917 in St. Gallen (Eisner et al. 2003: 89). For the next decade, waste water treatment included only a mechanical treatment step, where solid waste was filtered out but the bacteriological quality of the water was not significantly improved (Neumann et al. 2015: 406).

Swiss Water Protection

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