On the verge of change

New water management in the Netherlands

Clean water is nothing special – well, at least that is what we think. In fact, all tap water in the Netherlands is of drinking quality. We do not only drink water, we cook with it, we flush the toilet with it, we wash our cars with it and we swim in it. Water is such an everyday necessity that we only think of this precious resource when there is a surplus or a shortage. When the waterworks are under maintenance and there is no water coming from the tap, or when you cannot drink the water when you are abroad, you discover how special clean water truly is. The same applies to rivers and seawater. On a hot summer's day, the refreshing waves are very welcome, but if your cellar is filled with seawater, you will probably not be so happy with it anymore. Since dikes are very rarely breached, the balance between water and land is somewhat taken for granted—but the fact is that a lot of people are working around the clock to ensure that none of the dams or dikes are overcome.

Changing climates

In the near future, it will become increasingly difficult to take water for granted as we do now. The likelihood of floods will rise. Because the Earth is slowly heating up, ice formations will melt, and the total water volume within the seas and rivers will increase and eventually, the water levels will rise. These developments will have severe consequences for the safety of people living in coastal areas. Since approximately half of the Netherlands is below sea level, any climate changes will probably have their influence on the millions of people living in these areas. Despite rising sea levels and subsidence of land, another factor which will face hydraulic engineers is the inevitable change in the weather. The Netherlands will see higher temperatures and higher rates of precipitation.

  • By the year 2100, average temperatures will be between 1 and 6 degrees Celsius higher than they are today. This will result in a rise in sea level, which will present a new challenge for coastal protection.
  • Although precipitation is expected to remain at the same levels during summertime, the winter precipitation will increase by 6 to 25 percent. As a result, rivers, and ditches will have to deal with extra water during the winter. Not all river systems will be able to cope with this increase.
  • An increase in population will require the construction of more houses and streets, meaning that more concrete and asphalt will have to be produced. As a result, water cannot disperse into the ground, causing localized flooding in the winters and preventing water recharge of dry soils in summer. When soil gets dehydrated, water pollution becomes worse. And declining water level in rivers can cause salty seawater at the rivers’ mouths to advance inland. Salt intrusion can have detrimental effects for agriculture and nature which depend on freshwater.

After the floods in 1953, the Netherlands was once again reminded of their vulnerability to flooding. More attention was given to water management and the ways of dealing with issues changed. In 1995 and 1997, extremely high river water levels almost caused another flood disaster. This boosted the investments in dikes and water management once again.

Break with history

For many years, water was disposed of as quickly as possible—the quicker, the better. The idea that water should be removed from the land as quickly as possible was deeply imprinted in the Dutch mindset. The extremely hot summer of 2003 demonstrated, however, that this strategy does not always work. The west Netherlands was so dried out that water from the Amsterdam-Rhine channel had to be redirected to recharge the groundwater levels. If the groundwater level had become too low, the peaty soil between Leiden, Rotterdam, and Breukelen would have settled by compaction, and buildings in the area could have collapsed.

Unfortunately, rain is not divided out proportionally throughout the year; most rain falls in the winter. However, it would be very useful to have some extra water during dry times. One solution would be to store the winter rainwater and save it for the summer. The winter water could be kept at its place of origin until it can be used in the summer. For example, in the provinces of North-Brabant, Limburg, and Flanders, farmers have placed small dams across ditches so that rainwater does not automatically drain away. This ensures a rise in groundwater levels and less irrigation water has to be used. If water cannot be stored at its origin, it may be pumped to an alternatively allocated area. A polder, for instance, can serve as a buffer.

Sustainable water management’ is a term that has just appeared within the last decade, which means we are still in the process of understanding its meaning and implications. Simply put, sustainable water management is the control, use, and return of water, and is guided by the following principles: (1) The natural water supply should not be exceeded. When more water is taken up than comes in through precipitation or run-off from rivers, the water storage in the soil decreases and groundwater levels go down; (2) There should be a focus on the quality of the water, such that when the water is returned to nature, it will not harm the environment; (3) People should limit their water usage as much as possible, and use the same water for as long as possible. In sum, the water taken up from the environment should be returned in the same quantity and with the same quality as it would be in natural circumstances.

Collection and use- One of the goals of sustainable water management is to return used water to the environment with the same quantity and quality from which it was extracted. In West European countries, 16% of available freshwater is drawn from the environment. 5% of this water is consumed and does not return to its original course. Of course, the water does not disappear completely; some of the water will evaporate and return to nature in the form of rain, for example. Since water use is higher in arid areas (for instance, in the Mediterranean region), this land will dry out even more quickly than in Western Europe. Another way by which the environment may be harmed is by returning water to another place from which it was drawn. If more water is drawn from a river than is returned, the river could dry up.

The rise of sustainable water management- Sustainable water management is the awareness that natural resources are not inexhaustible and that humans should take special care of the world. Especially since the publication of the report Border on Growth, by the Club of Rome in 1972, environment has become an important issue. The most important problems with regards to water were identified as water shortage, flooding, and the formation of new deserts. To resolve these problems, too-large, unfeasible international projects were regularly planned. During the last fifteen years, the focus has shifted to small-scale projects that are easier to finance and implement. In addition to the projects’ being easier to implement, the results of the projects can be measured more effectively as well. Every year, dozens of successful small-scale projects are carried out in the Netherlands in order to make sustainable water management and water use possible.

Instruments of sustainable water management- The government has many different instruments to control Dutch water management. One such instrument is an economic one, inasmuch as the government can influence the public and private demand for water. The Dutch government tries to persuade people and companies to use water in a rational and economical way. Water usage indicators can be installed and information can be supplied via newspapers, radio and television. Another way in which heavy use of water can be discouraged is to levy taxes on the resource’s largest consumers. Moreover, the physical distribution system and the technique of water withdrawal could be improved so that less water is wasted. Although it may seem like only a drop in the ocean, so to speak, water leakage is very high in most European countries. The leakage varies from 3.7 m3 for every kilometer of water mains in Germany (112 liters of water per household per day) to even 8.4 m3 per kilometer in England (243 liters of water per household per day). The construction of new houses offers the opportunity to implement new techniques in water management. For instance, by constructing rainwater reservoirs, rainwater can be reused for purposes such as watering the garden or the houseplants.