The Netherlands is a country which has been continuously shaped by water throughout its history. A vital but less noticeable form of this water is groundwater, which plays roles in numerous natural, agricultural and industrial processes. These resources are managed through an intricate and specialized system of actors unique in the world, but what are some of the limitations of this system in face of future challenges?
What is Groundwater and why does it matter?
Groundwater is water found in soil below the Earth’s surface, and the level of this groundwater influences various human and natural processes. Lakes, rivers and wetlands as well as natural plant growth are sustained by groundwater and agricultural crops are irrigated largely using groundwater. Various industrial processes depend on groundwater, and groundwater represents a large source of our drinking water (58%). The management of this groundwater is becoming increasingly important in recent years, as the quality and quantity of groundwater is being compromised. Drinking water production and various industrial activity currently extract water from the ground faster than natural mechanisms can refill the reserves. Pesticides, fertilizers, and industry are contaminating these water reservoirs, risking the security of this supply on all its fronts. The management and regulation of this groundwater therefore represents a challenge for Dutch water management authorities. How is this management currently structured?
Water Management: the structure
Water management in the Netherlands, including the management of groundwater, consists largely of the actions of decentralized public authorities called water boards (“waterschappen”) who manage regional waters. These water boards have tasks outlined by Dutch law, are supported by their own financial system, and have members who are elected every four years. Water boards therefore function as their own political entity, in a system that is unique in the world. Alongside these boards, the ‘Rijkswaterstaat’ (RWS, the centralized water governance authority) manages major waters such as the sea and rivers and takes care of coastal protection and flood management.
Though this system may appear orderly and coordinated at first glance, at closer inspection it quickly becomes clear that this system is quite chaotic. Responsibilities and tasks of the water boards often overlap with or are shared with those of other actors in the country’s water management: three separate ministries; provincial management of the 12 provinces; various departments of the RWS; the sewage system management on a municipal level; and finally, waterworks companies.
The system is further complicated by the political nature of the management structures. Farmers that own a large amount of land have a large influence in the local water boards due to their decentralized nature, allowing farmers to influence decisions in their favor. I recently spoke with a man who had lived in his house for half a century, who complained about the low groundwater level in his surroundings, pushed by farmers for whom the low level enabled them to use heavy machinery on their land. The effects were noticeable in the reduced growth of the vegetables in his garden, as well as in changes in the growth of surrounding nature. These dynamics can affect the stability of the management structure, and lead to outcomes not in the best interest of society.
The importance of groundwater management
It is essential that (ground)water be managed responsibly. Low levels of groundwater can have devastating consequences. Many natural ecosystems are at a greater danger of drying out, bringing risks of environmental damage. The drying out of peat lands for example, makes the large quantities of carbon stored in these lands vulnerable to emission into the atmosphere as CO2. Urban areas also suffer from a low groundwater level: low water levels expose the wooden foundations of buildings, causing rot. Groundwater related soil subsidence, the sinking of land due to removal of groundwater in the earth, represents a threat to buildings and other structures. Land subsidence can also cause elevation changes in land, increasing risks of flooding. A lower level of groundwater also leads to a decrease in the quality of the water, as sea water can more easily contaminate these reserves with salt. This decrease in quality puts natural areas, industrial processes and the water that we drink at risk.
The rising of sea levels due to global warming further increases the importance of ground water management: the weakening of natural and man-made coastal protection infrastructures by low ground water level can greatly increase the risk of flooding.
Changes in the management structure?
Though reduction of the complexity of the water management structure is underway (2,500 water boards in 1950, to 48 in 2003, to 21 in 2018), the system is still limited by its complexity as well as its political nature. An increase in the coordination by a central authority (such as the RWS) may allow the tasks and responsibilities in and around (ground)water management to be performed more effectively, with a clearer overview, and with more direction towards the best interest of society. I further believe that water management can be disadvantaged if it is included in spheres of politics, where agendas of specific groups can be pushed over collectively good outcomes, doubly so in the case of the widely important groundwater.
An argument against the distributing of tasks and responsibilities to central authorities is that local power to make these management decisions enables a system more capable of dynamic problem solving – that is, with respect to local concerns. Furthermore, the existence of water boards extends the democratic power of Dutch citizens. Though I agree with some of the points of this argument, I do believe that objectives that serve the interest of society as a whole should be prioritized, and I am skeptical that a locally managed system (always) leads to those outcomes in practice.