Water, an Introduction

It is a cliché, but a true statement nonetheless: Without water we could not survive. It is not only essential to human beings whose existence is in grave danger without direct access to water, but also to the plants and animals that require its nourishment to sustain life. Although it may be difficult to picture this Earth without water, it is not so self-evident that there is not enough freshwater for all this world’s population to consume. All over the globe hundreds of millions of people do not have access to fresh drinking water and need to walk kilometers to the nearest water source. It is not only a shortage of water that can cause trouble; a surplus of water can cause just as much damage and, in extreme cases, even loss of life. Just think about the great flood disaster of 1953 and the tsunami in Asia in January 2005.

Water usage has increased six-fold in this last century, which is double the rate of world population growth. With this, the growing population requires an increasing amount of drinking water, water for industrial use, and water for agriculture. In fact, 70% of freshwater reserves are used in agriculture. Water has been extracted from rivers and groundwater reserves to such an extent that this has caused rivers such as the Colorado, Ganges, and Yellow rivers to dry up before even reaching the sea.

Apart from the decreasing water quantity the decrease in water quality also presents a problem. Pollution from industrial by-products, sewage treatment, and agricultural can make even the least accessible water unsuitable for our use. This affects the quality of drinking water, irrigation water and even rainwater: emissions from industries are the main source of acid rain that has a detrimental effect on the environment. Water has become scarce and its scant availability is a major social and economic concern. Sustainable water management therefore presents one of the great challenges of our time.

The Dutch share a collective legacy of a love-hate relationship with water. Ever since its first settlers inhabited this land they have tried to control the water by constructing ditches and canals, and pumping water from one place to another. The famous story of Hansje Brinker (originating in the U.S.) tells the tale of a little boy who finds a hole in a dike and presses his thumb inside to prevent his hometown from flooding. Stories like this and the fact that the Dutch have lived below sea level for centuries has earned them international renown in the domain of managing this very precious and life-sustaining resource.