Local Government Magazine
Three Waters

Water management in the Netherlands

Water management in the Netherlands

Marta Karlik-Neale moved to the Netherlands recently [2019]. She says that in some areas of New Zealand we will have to learn to live with water the way Dutch do. This includes accepting higher costs of water management.

On March 20 this year, the Dutch elected new representatives to manage water in their constantly flood-threatened country. They have been electing these water boards since at least the 13th century; the Delft Water Board was established in 1289. I have just moved to the Netherlands and was privileged to witness the political debate surrounding the elections.
As an EU citizen (I have dual Polish and New Zealand citizenship), I was allowed and encouraged to vote for the water boards. Note that I was not allowed to vote in the provincial government elections held on the same day.
Water is by far the most democratic issue in Dutch politics. There are even specific political parties formed only for water board elections and focusing purely on water issues.
Dutch water boards are some of the oldest democratic institutions in Europe: perhaps in the world. Most of Dutch territory is naturally a coastal wetland. If left unmanaged it would soon become submerged or return to its natural wet state.

The people who came to live here had to actively manage water from the start. Usually, this management centred around a polder – a piece of land that was protected from flooding by a system of dikes, sluices, canals and wind-powered pumps that constantly removed the excess water to rivers or sea.
The functioning of this complex system depended on willing collaboration. If any part of the defence system was not maintained properly, the polder would flood. Farms and houses would be destroyed.

Today, people talk about a polder democracy imbedded in their political culture and based on the art of compromise and focus on bringing everyone along.
I met with Jeep Evers, senior lecturer water and environmental policy at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, to decide who to vote for. I started our conversation by acknowledging the agreed supremacy of Dutch water management. Jeep looked at me incredulously.
“It is, for sure, our biggest export”, he said. Then he proceeded to educate me on the incredible cost and the problems associated with the water management here.
One of the key political issues in elections is whether the water boards should be abolished. The Netherlands already has a two-tier local government – municipalities and provincial government based on historical provincial borders. Water boards sit uncomfortably in-between.
Water management responsibilities are divided across all levels of government with drinking water provided by independent state-owned enterprises. For example, wastewater treatment is a responsibility of water boards – but only the main trunk sewers. The municipalities manage the last mile.
In the 1950s, there were still more than 2500 water or polder boards, each managing water within its own small area. They have since been consolidated but there are still 21 of them. There are only 12 provinces.
One of the reasons why the water boards persist is the cost of water management. According to the National Water Management Plan, annual water expenditure in the Netherlands equals €7 billion, (approximately NZ$11.78 billion). There’s an additional ongoing Delta flood defence programme worth €20 billion (around NZ$33.91 billion).
Central government covers only 17 percent of that cost. A big proportion of the budget comes from taxes raised by water boards. As tax-raising institutions, water boards need to remain democratically elected. Could municipalities or provinces take over this function? Perhaps.
The key reason why water management in the Netherlands is so expensive is simple. It is a man-made system that has to be constantly and actively managed and maintained. Take water levels for example – another key political issue. The Dutch can adjust the water levels at different locations (within a polder) by pumping more or less water.
Any water board has representatives from four types of water users: business, agriculture, nature and residents. Agricultural representatives typically want the water levels to be kept low so that land is dry enough to farm on.
On a side note, most horticulture in Holland is undertaken in glass houses because the ground is too wet and the plants need to be raised above it.
Residents, on the other hand, want the water level high. Houses in the Netherlands need to be built on piles, often driven 20 or more metres into the ground to reach the bedrock under the sand deposits. Many of the piles, especially the older ones, are wooden and have to be kept submerged to prevent them decomposing.

So, what about nature? Nature has one seat among 30 people on the Delft Board. There is not much untouched land or coastline left in the Netherlands anyway and what there is, is put to work actively supporting the water infrastructure.
There is a beautiful dune system along the coast. It is a national park and one of a few natural recreation areas available. This does not stop the Dutch from using the dunes as a water filter as well.
This conversation has made me appreciate what we have in New Zealand – an ecosystem where water requires much less management and investment. The natural environment is still robust enough to maintain our water resources, its provision and quality. Most of the time our natural areas regulate water flows efficiently so we don’t have to live under constant risk of flooding.
Sure, we are approaching the limits of that system and climate change is putting additional strain on it, but it still functions and it does it for free.
I think we have a lot to learn from the Dutch. With sea level rise, there will be areas in New Zealand where we will have to learn to live with water the way the Dutch do. This includes accepting higher costs of water management.
However, for the most part we should invest in preserving and strengthening the natural systems that we are blessed to have. That, for me, was the warning I heard in the Dutch Water Board debates.

  •  Marta Karlik-Neale has worked as a sustainability and resilience director at AECOM New Zealand and is currently living in the Netherlands.

This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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