Biodiversität English Landnutzung Wasser

Water infrastructures as mediators between nature and society on the Croatian island of Veliki Brijun

Photo: Dženeta Hodžić

The increasing frequency of extreme weather events in Europe is leading to debates about the construction, deconstruction or reconstruction of water infrastructures with the aim of creating more resilient societies. Dams, pipelines or wells are often portrayed as technological systems that channel water flows in order to meet basic human needs such as a sufficient supply of drinking water or a reliable protection against floods. Social-ecological research perspectives, however, go one step further and discuss water infrastructures as significant mediators between nature and society. Such an alternative perspective reveals multiple potentials as well as risks inherent in water infrastructures when it comes to water security in times of multiple crises. In this article, we use the example of the culturally and ecologically protected island of Veliki Brijun, Croatia, in order to show how water infrastructures not only reflect but also shape the changing relationships between nature and society over the course of time in a particular area.

Infrastructure lives

In her recently published doctoral thesis titled “Infrastructure Lives”, Lena Hommes, researcher at the University of Girona, uses a variety of empirical examples to show that water infrastructures are neither passive nor neutral[1]. Instead, dams and pipelines have an influence on how societies discuss, use and regulate water. Political leaders therefore often design the planning and construction of water infrastructure to serve their political interests. Once built, water infrastructures then have a wide range of effects on people’s everyday lives. Water infrastructures are therefore not “neutral”, but always influence the interests and values of social and political actors – and are in turn consciously used by them. However, infrastructures do not always fulfill the function intended for them by society. Due to their complexity, their physical nature, but also due to their continuous and controversial appropriation by different social groups over time, dams, wells or pipelines can go beyond the original human intentions. However, infrastructures do not always perform their societally intended function. Due to their complexity, their physicality but also because of their continuous and contested appropriation by different societal groups over time, dams, wells or pipes may exceed initial human intentions[2]. For example, building wells in order to supply livestock may – unintentionally – also attract wild animals and hence alter how humans, livestock and wildlife relate to each other in a specific space.

To explain, how water infrastructures are able to unfold such a strong influence, the notion of “lock-in” was adopted. Originating from economics, “lock-in” describes a situation in which staying with the established solution seems cheaper than switching to an alternative – despite advantages of the latter. Applied to water infrastructures, researchers were able to show how extensive investments, long-lasting underground materials, vested interests of the operating institutions and possibly political-ideological interests with regard to dams, canals or irrigation systems can interlock in such a way that the existing infrastructure appears necessary and sensible[3]. This can in turn postpone the implementation of alternative approaches to water management and governance for decades. Hence, water infrastructures and their lock-in potential are usually associated with strengthening asymmetrical relations between nature and society in which certain societal groups but also ecosystems are marginalized in the long-term.

In our own research on such “lock-ins”, we showed that these are no self-evident attributes of water infrastructures but are made and remade over the course of time in a particular area[4]. Studying the construction and expansion of a long-distance water transfer in Germany enabled us to identify three situations in which a new lock-in situation evolved as a result of a changing constellation of technological, economic, political and institutional factors. For example, after the German re-unification in 1990, the breakdown of the East German industrial sector and the upcoming commercialization of the water sector led to the expansion of the pipeline system with the aim to acquire new customers, instead of downsizing its capacity. Because of this new lock-in, previously self-supplying areas could connect themselves to the expanded long-distance water transfer infrastructure – and do so until today.

Such a contingency of water infrastructures, lock-ins and associated societal impacts implies that the rebuilding or new construction of pipelines, dams or wells can also open up new pathways instead of leading to a further entrenchment of unsustainable or inequitable water management and administration. We would now like to expand on the idea of water infrastructure as a mediator with the potential to forward the relationship between nature and society in a more sustainable direction by looking at the historical development of water infrastructures on the Croatian island of Veliki Brijun.

Veliki Brijun between nature and society

The island of Veliki Brijun belongs to the Brijuni archipelago in Croatia and is located west of the Istrian peninsula. Due to its rich cultural and ecologic heritage, it was proclaimed a national park in 1983 and welcomes around 150,000 tourists per year[5]. For centuries, the island and its surrounding waters have been a habitat for humans, animals and plants. However, the shape of their co-existence has not been constant over time but has continuously transformed due to climate change and the policies of various nations that have ruled the Istrian peninsula since the mid-19th century[6]. Water infrastructures such as wells or pipelines were integral parts of each state-building project on the island. In the following, we present several hydraulic infrastructure projects and concurrent practices from the last hundred years to show how they separated, mediated or blurred boundaries between nature and society on the Brijuni islands.

Water infrastructure on Veliki Brijun

The first drinking water supply and sewage systems on Veliki Brijun date back to Roman times. Archeaological sites of the island reveal the existence of a spring, a cistern and an irrigation system for olive cultivation[7]. At the beginning of the 20th century, the arrival of the Austrian industrialist Paul Kupelwieser on Veliki Brijun fundamentally changed the relationship between society and nature on the island. His aim was to utilize the island’s natural resources to promote medical tourism. For this purpose, he built seawater baths as he was convinced of the benefits of salt water for human health. However, malaria-carrying mosquitoes that were native to the island’s wetlands posed a serious obstacle for building a health resort. With the help of bacteriologist Robert Koch, the wetlands of Veliki Brijun were drained and malaria eradicated[8]. Large-scale drainage also facilitated the expansion of agricultural activities on the island[9]. Prokić and Petrić (2024) present these drainage practices not solely as a human appropriation of nature, but argue as follows: “In this sense, the struggle for power on Brijuni was often not just between various human armies and other forces that claimed the islands. Of equal importance for the everyday lives of the islanders since the introduction of salterns was the struggle between the humans and the various species of mosquitoes, spearheaded by the deadly, malaria-bearing anopheles” (p. 57).

The conversion of wetlands into recreational areas was just one infrastructural pillar of Kupelwieser’s vision. Due to the lack of fresh surface water on the island, a long-distance water pipeline from a brackish source near the village of Fažana on the mainland was built beneath the sea all the way to Veliki Brijun in order to ensure a sufficient water supply for tourists and agriculture[10]. Due to the high salinity and long retention time, the brackish water caused a reaction with the tube’s metal surface. To stop further corrosion that could have eventually led to leaks, the long-distance pipeline was connected to the Pula water supply system in 1908[11]. In the 1950s, drilling experiments facilitated the construction of several wells of which the so-called “spring of life” is the best known. Until the 1980s, it supplied the island with groundwater from a depth of 251 metres. Figure 1 shows the ornate well house, which is now a popular tourist attraction.

Figure 1: Monument to the „Spring of life“, well on Veliki Brijun (photo: Dženeta Hodžić, 2024)

For decades, drainage systems (wells and pipes) on the island mediated between nature and society, enabling it to serve as a popular health resort for tourists and later as the famous residence of Yugoslav President Tito.

From infrastructural “lock-in” to “break out”?

Despite its fundamental role for people on the island, knowledge about the locations of the water infrastructures has been lost in recent decades. Therefore, a few years ago Vodovod Pula (English: Water Utility Company Pula), the island’s current public water supplier, began to record the pipes built into the ground with the help of georadar, fieldwork, geodetic surveying and mapping[12]. Figure 2 shows existing pipelines, schematically depicted in blue with connection points in yellow. In view of the dilapidated condition of the old water infrastructure, Vodovod Pula is now planning to restore the water infrastructure for the entire island.

Figure 2: Existing pipeline network on Veliki Brijun (Vodovod Pula 2018)

At the same time, the national park authorities are planning to restore the drained wetlands to increase the island’s ecosystem functions. However, due to decades of drainage and changing climatic conditions, the existing groundwater levels are too low to naturally restore the wetlands. In a pilot project, biologists and hydrologists plan to use some abandoned wells and pipelines to extract groundwater and channel it to those wetlands intended for restoration. If this project succeeds, it would change the image of water infrastructure on the island and its role as a mediator between nature and society. Past infrastructural developments tended to increase the societal appropriation of nature on the island for touristic or diplomatic purposes while marginalizing its ecological dimension. The reconstruction of abandoned wells and pipelines for wetland restoration would, however, strengthen the island’s function as a unique ecosystem that also contributes to resilience in times of climate crisis. The implementation of this vision would not only shift the use of the island’s water infrastructure but also generally shows the potential role of water infrastructures as mediators between nature and society towards more sustainability.[13] [14]

As argued above, water infrastructures are often associated with “lock-ins” that marginalize alternative approaches to using or regulating water. However, the continuous use, reuse, oblivion, abandonment and rehabilitation of Veliki Brijun’s water infrastructure underlines that lock-ins of infrastructures are not an inherent attribute but are made and remade over time in a particular area. Moreover, the current plans to reuse abandoned water wells for the restoration of wetlands present an opportunity to fundamentally change the relationship between nature and society on the island and the infrastructures that mediate them. Hence, seemingly ‘fixed’ infrastructures and concomitant constellations between technical, political and economic factors can transform over time towards more sustainable societal relations to nature.


This blog article was written after an insightful field trip to the Brijuni nationalpark during the 4th International Conference on Waters in Sensitive and Protected Areas in Pula, Croatia, April 2024. We would like to thank Zoran Nakić, University of Zagreb, Croatia, for organizing the excursion and Josip Rubinić, University of Rijeka, Croatia, for providing us with hydrological information about the Brijuni national park.


[1] Hommes, Lena (2022): Infrastructure lives. Water, Territories and Transformations in Turkey, Peru and Spain. Dissertation: Wageningen University

[2] Bennett, Jane (Hg.) (2010): Vibrant matter. A political ecology of things. Durham

[3] Pahl-Wostl, Claudi (2002): Towards sustainability in the water sector – The importance of human actors and processes of social learning. Aquatic Sciences 46, 394–411

[4] Kuhn, David/Robert Luetkemeier/Fanny Frick-Trzebitzky/Linda Söller/Kristiane Fehrs (2024): Infrastructural lock-ins in the temporal and spatial development of a long-distance water transfer in Germany. Journal of Hydrology 634, 131070.

[5] Ministry of Tourism Republic of Croatia (Hg.) (2019): Tourism in figures

[6] Prokić, Milica/Hrvoje Petrić (2024): Nature(s) of Power: Environment, Politics and Prestige on Brijuni Islands in the Twentieth Century. Environment, Politics and Prestige on Brijuni Islands in the Twentieth Century. In: Prokić, Milica/Šimková, Pavla (Hg.): Entire of Itself?, 51–75

[7] Urošević, Nataša (2014): The Brijuni Islands – recreating paradise: media representations of an élite Mediterranean resort in the first tourist magazines. Journal of Tourism History 6 (2-3), 122–138.

[8] Prokić, Milica/Hrvoje Petrić (2024): Nature(s) of Power: Environment, Politics and Prestige on Brijuni Islands in the Twentieth Century. Environment, Politics and Prestige on Brijuni Islands in the Twentieth Century. In: Prokić, Milica/Šimková, Pavla (Hg.): Entire of Itself?, 51–75

[9] Brijuni National Park (Hg.) (2016): Management Plan Brijuni National Park

[10] Vodovod Pula (Hg.) (2018): Impact Assessment for Altering the Water Supply System of the Brijuni National Park

[11] Zvonko, Z. (Hg.) (2024): Brioni alias Brijuni Archipelago. at the south western coast of Istria Peninsula.

[12] Vodovod Pula (Hg.) (2018): Impact Assessment for Altering the Water Supply System of the Brijuni National Park

[13] Hummel, Diana/Thomas Jahn/Johanna Kramm/Immanuel Stieß (2023): Gesellschaftliche Naturverhältnisse – Grundbegriff und Denkraum für die Gestaltung von sozial-ökologischen Transformationen. In: Sonnberger, Marco/Alena Bleicher/Matthias Groß (Hg.): Handbuch Umweltsoziologie. Wiesbaden: Springer VS

[14] Monstadt, Jochen/Matthias Naumann (2005): New Geographies of Infrastructure Systems. Spatial Science Perspectives and the Socio-Technical Change of Energy and Water Supply Systems in Germany. netWORKS-Papers No. 10. Berlin.


David Kuhn

David is a research scientist at ISOE, specialized in social-ecological conflicts and water supply infrastructure. As a PhD candidate in the junior research group regulate, he investigates how long-distance water transfers shape groundwater conflicts. After obtaining his B.A. in political science at Free University of Berlin, David completed the interdisciplinary master’s programme Sustainable Development (M.Sc.) at Utrecht University (Netherlands). In his work, David combines approaches from Political Ecology, Peace and Conflict Studies and More-Than-Human studies.

Dženeta Hodžić

Dženeta is a research scientist at ISOE. In the junior research group regulate, she studies management and knowledge practices concerning groundwater in water utility companies, administrative authorities and hydro(geo)logical sciences. She studied European Ethnology and English at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, the University of Amsterdam and the University of Sarajevo. Currently, she is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology at Goethe University. Her research draws on ethnography, Science and Technology Studies and anthropology of policy.

Linda Söller

Linda is a PhD-candidate in the working group Hydrology at the Institute of Physical Geography, Goethe-University. She attained her M.Sc. in Physical Geography at Goethe-University and her focus is on global freshwater resources and biodiversity and their modification through climate change and human interventions. In her thesis, she investigated anthropogenic streamflow alterations and their impact on freshwater biota using global hydrological modelling and expert surveys. Within the junior research group regulate, Linda investigates alterations in groundwater quantity due to climate change and human water use.

0 Kommentare zu “Water infrastructures as mediators between nature and society on the Croatian island of Veliki Brijun

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht.