Gone water does not mill anymore – unless…?

By Hannah Vonberg, Arianna Pearlstein, & Helena Reinders

As the climate changes towards higher temperatures and less reliable weather, one of the main concerns for governments, non-state actors, and every single one of us is water. Water, especially freshwater, is essential to all forms of life on our planet; we need it to cultivate food, to drink, but also for energy production, reduction of the spread of diseases (the main reason for inventing canalisation systems), and to keep our environment safe to live in (just think of the danger of excessive rainfalls that can cause landslides, like in Colombia and Peru, the Philippines, and the US, to name just a few). More importantly, freshwater is finite and therefore even more scarce – this hosts a lot of potential for inducing or intensifying competition and conflict.

As such a valuable resource, water needs to be managed in a thought-through and careful way; however, as with many essential resources, the objectives of different actors clash and can cause intricate political processes. This article first introduces water management as a discipline before continuing to explore what water management and its political implications mean in practice, for which two cases will be analysed: The Netherlands and Indonesia.

What is water management and why do we need it?

One reason why we need water management dearly is the increasing scarcity of freshwater. Globally, 97.5% of water is either saltwater or has become polluted; a large portion of the remaining 2.5% is frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps (and therefore endangered to also become saltwater through melting). This leaves us with 0.01% of the water that can be used by humans. Freshwater scarcity is strongly facilitated by increased freshwater use paired with the depletion of usable freshwater resources – which means we have to satisfy a larger need for freshwater with less of it. This is why we need clear and reliable plans on how to manage this shrinking amount of freshwater efficiently and ethically. Water management then can be defined as the “management of water resources for the coming generations[; i]t involves the activity of planning, developing, distributing and managing the optimum use of water resources”.

Water management strongly links environmental aspects with political aspects. Freshwater as a finite but renewable resource will reduce due to climate change and increased demands for it; predictions (based on studies conducted by the UN and several NGOs) anticipate that severe water shortages will affect 48 countries by 2025 and at least 4 billion people by 2050. And no one wants to be part of that group of affected people, which is why there are expected soaring prices for water and heavy conflicts (potentially wars) to secure access to it. However, since access to new geological water reservoirs (e.g. lakes or rivers) is almost always impossible without transcending state borders and provoking a conflict, countries are becoming inventive to manage and increase the existing water resources within their territory.

Different Methods

The current consensus is that so-called piecemeal approaches (making small and gradual changes rather than having a concrete plan worked out at the beginning) are best suited to manage (fresh)water. Examples of piecemeal approaches within water management could be technological advances, monitoring, accounting for societal differences in approaching water issues, and the so-called water-energy-food nexus (also WEF nexus). ‘Nexus’ means ‘to connect’, so essentially the WEF refers to “the study of the connections between these three resource sectors, together with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs that arise from how they are managed”.

Methods of water management include (among many others) rainwater harvesting (RWH), groundwater recharge (naturally) and artificial groundwater recharge (through human action), sewage water treatment (cleaning water that has been collected through the canalisation, which includes household sewage and some industrial wastewater) and desalination (extracting the salt from seawater to turn it into freshwater). Another less commonly known, though very interesting method, is ‘greywater’ – this refers to the water that has been ‘gently used’, such as in sinks, showers or washing machines. It contains traces of dirt, grease, hair etc, but it is still highly useful. This is one of the only methods where water does not need to be chemically cleaned in order to use it again; instead, it can be capitalised effortlessly to water yards or even for agricultural use.

A lot of methods in water management essentially function on recovering and reusing freshwater, making use of its renewable and recyclable character. Furthermore, reduction of usage and optimisation of water technology are seen as important keys to achieving (fresh)water security for generations to come. But this requires strong yet flexible management that is aware of political factors, yet does not exploit them. Developing an ‘ideal’ water management plan by agencies or governments then could be accomplished in seven steps:

  1. Setting water management goals and policy
  2. Assessing current water uses and costs
  3. Developing a water balance
  4. Finding water efficiency opportunities and economics
  5. Developing an implementation plan
  6. Measuring progress
  7. Planning for contingencies

However, one main problem remains with water management in itself: The implicit assumption in any of those calculations and strategies is that climate and water systems behave as stationary systems, meaning that historical data can be used to statistically accurately predict the future – which is becoming increasingly difficult through extreme weather events caused by climate change.

Two different cases: The Netherlands and Indonesia

Having discussed all this, it is safe to say that no two countries in the world have the same water management system. Geological and political pre-conditions differ and therefore demand different approaches to water management. These differences are evident in comparing the following two cases, the Netherlands and Indonesia; starting the discussion with the former.

The Netherlands: Who created it, God or the Dutch?

As soon as anyone starts discussing water management, the conversation easily shifts towards The Netherlands. Its landscape is marked by rivers, dykes, and polders. Even though this is considered common knowledge amongst most, it can become tricky when discussing how the land got shaped in this manner. Moreover, who manages it? 

Water management in The Netherlands has been managed by the so-called Waterschappen (Water Authorities) as early as the year 1255.  This is when the very first Water Authority was set up: Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland. This Water Authority still exists to this day. Below you can find an overview of all current Water Authorities in The Netherlands. 

Source: Unie van Waterschappen (UvW)  

As can be seen in the map above, there are currently 21 Water Authorities in The Netherlands which all have their own region to manage. Their goals? Clean water, well-regulated amounts of water, and water safety. Under the goal of providing clean water the Authorities clean and purify sewage water, check water quality in water bodies, and mow banks and dredge ditches in order for the water to not become too murky and continue to flow. On top of this, they do everything they can to regulate the water flow, this does not mean they provide drinking water but that they ensure the rivers and other water bodies do not get too dry nor that water levels get too high and dangerous. This work became very evident during the extreme heat and drought The Netherlands experienced throughout the summer of 2018. The different Water Authorities all had to work together to ensure farmers would be able to continue to water their crops, while also guaranteeing the water that was left in water bodies was of a high enough quality for the biodiversity in and around them. On top of this, the droughts meant extra care had to go towards waterworks such as dykes and watermills in order to ensure their capabilities. Lastly, every Water Authority has its own crisis management department which focuses on the prevention, mitigation, and handling of out of the ordinary incidents and crises. 

The regions of the Water Authorities do not adhere to the provincial borders, nor those of the Safety Regions. This means that the Water Authorities do not only need to cooperate amongst themselves, but also with multiple Provincinces and Safety Regions. On top of this, they also cover multitudes of different municipalities and nature reserves. Take for example Waterschap Drent Overijsselse Delta (WDODelta). In the picture shown before, WDODelta can be seen as nr. 6, spanning from right underneath Assen all the way to Zwolle. It covers both parts of Overijssel and Drenthe, areas belonging to the Safety Regions of Drenthe and IJsselland while also bordering several other Safety Regions. WDODelta encompasses 7,001 kilometres of rivers, canals, and ditches, 16 sewage treatment plants, 1,020 kilometres of dikes and quays, 560 employees and more. Despite this, or perhaps partly because of this, WDODelta continues to deliver clean, safe, and plentiful water to their region. 

The floodings of July

Despite all of these centuries of experience and intensive care from the Water Authorities, water management, too, has received huge blows due to climate change. Not too long ago several countries were hit with extreme downpours, including The Netherlands. The downpours peaked so high that entire rivers flooded, claiming the lives of 31 people in Belgium and 165 people in Germany as of right now. The Netherlands, where only parts of Zuid-Limburg were flooded, came out of the floodings with no human casualties. 

Although some would argue Limburg came off easy, scientists and government officials hold a different opinion. After severe floods in 1993 and 1995, the Dutch have undertaken several large-scale water projects. These all aimed at providing rivers with more space to flood, as well as an increase of protection against floods. It is thanks to these projects that human casualties were avoided in The Netherlands. Some experts even go so far as to claim that if all of the projects had already been finished there would have been no floods at all within Dutch cities. This goes to show just how well the Dutch have got their water under control. 

The other side of the spectrum: Indonesia

Meanwhile, one country that probably does not come to mind when discussing water management but which is closely connected to the Netherlands, namely Indonesia, has also had to develop its own method of water management. As an island nation, rising sea levels have posed a particularly unique safety problem in Indonesia, and has made effective water management increasingly crucial over the years.

As Indonesia was colonized by the Netherlands for more than 300 years, it has not had its own independent water management system for as long as the Netherlands has. However, during  Dutch colonial rule, the PDAMs/Perusahaan Daerah Air/ Minum Municipal Waterworks were established throughout Indonesia as the primary body responsible for water management on the islands. Following Indonesia’s independence, the responsibility of these bodies was decentralized to the local public works offices and later, in the 1960s, to local government companies. In the 1970s the government again attempted to centralize control over water management in an attempt to facilitate economic growth. It was not until the fall of Suharto in the late 1990s that water management systems became fully decentralized.

Since the 1990s, Indonesia’s decentralizing momentum concerning water management has only picked up its pace, and today water management responsibilities are split between various federal, localized, and private actors. At the national level, the Department of Public Works is responsible for technical issues concerning infrastructure and raw water management, while the more managerial and administrative dimensions are the responsibility of the Department of Home Affairs. Financial issues are the responsibility of the department of finance, while the Department of Health acts to set requirements concerning things such as the quality of drinking water.

Since the passage of law No.22/1999, city, municipal, and provincial governments have been granted increasing responsibility as the owners of PDAMs and primary actors responsible for their management. This shift largely came as a result of political arguments that it is the obligation of PDAMs to generate income for local bodies, irrespective of their profitability. Consequently, although the various federal bodies mentioned above continue to attempt to influence the way in which PDAMs are managed, local bodies managing the PDAMs have asserted increasing influence over the way they operate.  While these dynamics of water management in Indonesia are certainly complicated enough, the influence of private actors adds another level of complexity to the way water is regulated, distributed, and used in Indonesia. It is law No. 7/2004 on water resources that gave increasing sway to private actors.

In sum, Indonesia’s water management system has been thoroughly developed into a complex system thoroughly embedded in legal codes. However, as a poorer state, its resources for effective execution are not as abundant as those in The Netherlands, and changes such as those in relation to climate change have been an issue. Thus, Indonesia has developed partnerships with various states to further its water management capacities, with The Netherlands being one of the more prominent ones.

Cooperation, the future of water management?

Through their history of colonization, The Netherlands and Indonesia have already established a history of cooperation on water management. In recent times, this relationship has primarily taken the form of an exchange of knowledge and expertise through the Netherlands Water Partnership. Soil subsidence in Indonesia has been a prominent point of cooperation between the two countries, along with the development of the lowlands via integrated water management. As Indonesia is a middle-income country and continues to grow in that regard, the Indo-Dutch partnership has also increasingly turned to focus on business and investment opportunities in the field of water management. Though the exact outcomes of this cooperation, and others like it, has yet to be determined, it could be the next step in water management. Only time can tell. 

Edited by Hannah Vonberg, Arianna Pearlstein, Helena Reinders, artwork by Oscar Laviolette