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Article Published 04 Jun 2012 Last modified 17 Mar 2023
8 min read
Photo: © Pawel Kazmierczyk
This page was archived on 17 Mar 2023 with reason: Content is outdated
When faced with scarcity or increasing pressures on vital resources such as water and land, the question of who decides can be as important as how natural resources are managed and used. Global coordination is often essential but without local endorsement and involvement, nothing can be done on the ground.

We are probably all familiar with the tale of Hans Brinker, the young Dutch boy, who spent the night with his finger plugging the hole in the dyke to stop water seeping in and flooding the city of Harlem. That the story was actually written by an American author, Mary Mapes Dodge (1831–1905), who had never been to the Netherlands, is often a surprise.

Joep Korting is not quite so well known but he is a key link in one of the most sophisticated water management systems in the world, which includes local, regional and national administration, as well as links with authorities in other countries and sophisticated computerised monitoring systems that use satellites to check the infrastructure around the clock. 

Joep is also one of the links on the ground, essential to the implementation of one of the most ambitious and comprehensive pieces of EU legislation ever - the Water Framework Directive (WFD). 

The Water Framework Directive calls for coordinated action to achieve ‘good status’ for all EU waters, including surface and groundwater, by 2015. It also stipulates how we should manage our water resources based on natural river basin districts. Several other pieces of EU legislation, including the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Floods Directive, complement the WFD in improving and protecting Europe’s water bodies and aquatic life.

Re-thinking the way we live

It is no secret that water is a big issue in the Netherlands. Around 25 % of its land area - on which 21 % of the Dutch population lives - is below sea level. Fifty per cent of the land area is just one metre above sea level. But the Netherlands has more than the sea to deal with. The supply of fresh water to citizens and business, the management of rivers flowing from other countries as well as water shortages in warm periods are just some of the tasks at hand.

The Dutch are not alone. Water is becoming a critical issue around the globe. During the 20th century we experienced an unprecedented growth in population, economy, consumption and waste production. Water withdrawals alone have tripled over the last 50 years.

Water is just one of the resources under increasing pressure. There are many more environmental problems from air quality to land availability that have been seriously affected by key developments such as growing populations, economies and consumption.

Although we do not have the complete picture, what we know about the environment urges us to re think the way we use and manage our resources. This re thinking - the green economy - could involve fundamentally changing the way we live, do business, consume and deal with our waste, changing our entire relationship with the planet. A key element of green economy is the efficient management of the natural resources on Earth. But what does efficient management of resources mean? What could it look like in the case of water?

Copyright: UN Photo/Logan AbassiWater is a vital resource. It sustains us, connects us and helps us to thrive. Our societies could not survive without fresh water. We depend on it not only for growing our food, but also for producing almost all the other goods and services we enjoy.

Water management on the ground

Joep starts work at the local water authority in Deurne, the Netherlands, at 8 a.m. every morning. Among his main tasks is the checking a small number of the 17 000 kilometres of dykes in the small country - 5 000 kilometres of which protect against the sea and major rivers. 

Joep also checks the canals, locks and sluices - sometimes removing waste or cuttings from agriculture, other times repairing damaged equipment. Whatever the task, he is constantly gauging the height of the water and noting possible tweaks to manage it.

The area where Joep works has 500 weirs that are monitored daily. By turning the weirs up or down the water level is increased or decreased in order to control the movement of water across the region. Despite all the hi tech systems, Joep and seven colleagues manually work and check the locks every day. Water levels are constantly monitored and there is an emergency action plan and 24 hour emergency phone lines.

Copyright: Thinkstock

Stakeholder democracy

Joep and his colleagues are implementing decisions taken by the Dutch water boards. Currently there are 25 local water boards in the Netherlands. Together they represent an institutional concept dating from the 13th century when farmers got together and made agreements to drain water together from their fields. Uniquely, the water boards are completely autonomous from local government and even have their own budgets and their own elections - making water boards the oldest democratic institutions in the Netherlands.

‘This means when budget discussions or local elections come up, we are not competing with investments in local football pitches, school facilities, a youth club or new road - which may be more popular choices,’ says Paula Dobbelaar, Head of a district of the Aa en Maas water board and Joep’s boss.

‘We also have day to day activities, for example, in relation to the Water Framework Directive, we are actually trying to give our rivers more freedom - allowing them to meander and find their own way and not only run in straight lines. By giving them this freedom and allowing more space they take on a very different nature - they become part of a more natural ecosystem again,’ Paula says.

‘The problem in the Netherlands is that we have been very well organised in the past and successful at dealing with water issues - we’ve kept everybody safe for 50 years — people now take it all for granted. For example, last year, we had very heavy rain in this part of Europe and while people in Belgium got very concerned about the whole thing, Dutch people didn’t — they expected that it would be taken care of,’ Paula adds.

As mentioned, local water authority members are elected but only 15 % of the population vote in these elections. ‘It’s not really representative and it’s again a result of the fact that Dutch people have become a little immune to water issues,’ she says.

The wide spectrum between local and global

The main policy options for effective sustainable water management must include technological innovation, flexible and cooperative governance, public participation and awareness and economic instruments and investments. The involvement of people at local level is essential.

‘Water certainly connects us globally and locally — the problems and the solutions,’ says Sonja Timmer who works in the International Department of the Dutch Association of Regional Water Managers, the umbrella organisation for water management across the Netherlands. 

‘The fact is that despite a high level of safety standards in the Netherlands, we are experiencing higher sea levels, very dry winters followed by increased incidents of ‘freak’ rainfall in August and in recent years, as a result of heavy rain in Switzerland and Germany, the Rhine has been very high. That water ends up here.’

Keeping the spotlight on the environment

Copyright: Gülcin Karadeniz‘Dealing with more water at certain times flowing across international borders or higher sea levels obviously involve international action. We are part of an international network and we see from our shared experiences that if water is not in the news every day, our job becomes more difficult,’ Sonja says.

‘For me, our work at a local level is tied to the national and the international’ Paula says. On the one hand we have employees going around checking weirs and water courses …. And making sure they are kept clean and water levels are what our clients (farmers, citizens, nature conservation organisations) want. On the other hand we have great plans that are translated from high abstract EU WFD principles to actual protocols for Joep to work with in the field. I now appreciate this local aspect. Previously, I worked around the world at a strategic level — at a high level with very little understanding of the need to get the local structures right.’ 

‘Sitting with ministers talking about global water strategy it’s very hard to keep two feet on the ground. This has been a major issue for developing countries — lots of strategy at high level — very little understanding, infrastructure, investment on the ground.’ 

‘Now as water issues become a pressing reality in Europe, we also need this ‘feet on the ground’ local approach as well as the grander plans’, Paula says. 

‘I have eight people out checking the locks every day. They all live here and they understand the local people and the local conditions. Without these things you end up with one plan failing and simply being replaced with another. We all need to work at that — making a difference locally — empowering people to look after their own water issues,’ she says.

‘The local level is also key,’ Sonja agrees. ‘Governance, the functional, decentralised approach, can take many forms and that’s what makes it work. We just have to engage people again and explain to them that there is a risk and we need them to stay involved,’ she says.

A governance crisis

Although parts of the world are faced with the risk of water scarcity and others with the risk of flooding, talk of a global water crisis is inaccurate. Instead, we face a water governance crisis. 

Meeting the needs of a resource efficient, low carbon society, sustaining human and economic development and maintaining the essential functions of water ecosystems requires that we give our largely silent ecosystems a voice, a lobby. We are talking about political choices — choices that must be based on the right governmental and institutional framework. 

The story of the small boy who stuck his finger in the dam is often referred to today to describe several different approaches to managing a situation. It can refer to taking a small action to avert a major disaster. It can also mean trying to cure the symptoms rather than dealing with causes. 

The reality is that effective water management, like the management of many other resources, will require solutions that draw upon a combination of actions and decisions at various levels. Global targets and commitments can only be translated into concrete achievements if people like Joep and Paula are there to implement them.

The Information Revolution

Satellites can sometimes perform more tasks than they were built for. Together with a couple of creative colleagues, Ramon Hanssen, Professor of Earth Observation at Delft University of Technology, developed a system for monitoring the 17 000 kilometres of dykes in the Netherlands. Of these, 5 000 kilometres protect the Dutch from the sea and the major rivers. 

It would be impossible to inspect all of these frequently from the ground. That would be far too costly. Using the radar images from the European Earth observation satellites Envisat and ERS 2, the Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) can check the dykes every day. Even the tiniest movement can be detected, because the measurements are accurate to the nearest millimetre.

Copyright: Shutterstock

Hanssen christened the concept ‘Hansje Brinker’ after the legendary boy who put his finger in the dyke to protect the Netherlands from floods. Does this mean that the Directorate-General’s inspections are no longer necessary? According to Professor Hanssen, this is not the case. The radar indicates which areas require attention due to movement. An inspector can enter the coordinates into his navigation system, which is also a space technology application, and then set off to carry out more detailed research on the ground.

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