One step beyond please

The Dutch have a special relationship with water. We are world leaders in water technology, security and quality. This relationship begins with resistance, and progresses to adaptation and ultimately synergies. We not only stay safe and minimize flood damage, but also exploit the quality and strength of water. We propose that this position be expanded further still, moving towards the use of water as a business and an economic driving force.

The relationship

Our relationship with water has many dimensions. In the first place, it is our enemy. We must protect ourselves against it, and no one does this better than we do. The recently published book Dijken van Nederland (Dikes of the Netherlands) by LoLa Landscape Architects illustrates this wonderfully.

Our second relation to water is adaptive. Building higher dikes is not always a desirable and affordable solution. So we are working on programmes in which regional spatial development seeks to avoid the inconvenience that water can cause.

And we go a step further. In a third, synergistic approach, we make ourselves safer and also invest in other social benefits such as nature conservation and structural improvements. For example in programs like “Ruimte voor de Rivier” (Room for the River) and the approach to the Kampereilanden (Kamper Islands). Another example is the project Poelzone in the Municipality Westland, where nature development and water safety go hand in hand in a fully paved area.

Next step

We envision a step beyond that, which is about business. We see how valuable water is, because it has a direct economic impact on our daily lives. Tap water has value, and water is used in many agricultural and industrial processes.

The value of water has two aspects. In the first place, quality; and in the second, availability, which presents an opportunity for added value. The same water that pours from the sky and poses a threat, especially in highly urbanized areas, is also valuable in agricultural and industrial processes. We sense that immediately when there is a scarcity of clean water: for example in the agricultural sector, a lack of it regularly leads to watering bans. Prolonged droughts also put pressure on the availability of water for industrial processes. The Delta Programme is a huge investment in the availability of fresh water for the future, but the main problem with this approach is that it costs a lot of money.

We see an important question:

How can we maintain the long-term availability of fresh water for consumers, agriculture and industry while ensuring that it solves economic and social challenges?


We believe there is a step beyond that, which is about business

Water is business

In addition to resistance, adaptation and synergy, we see prospects for a fourth approach, based on the value of water. It is difficult to get a profitable operation off the ground without a public contribution to the construction of the system. Business case studies for the Zuidplaspolder and the Westland show that efficient use of space, marketable solutions and environmental sustainability can go hand in hand. They offer clean and affordable irrigation water, reduced wastewater, a substantially increased storage capability, and measures to counter salinization. For the Zuidplaspolder, a profitable operation can be run with a public contribution of EUR 2.5 million to the installation of the system. This means that the government has a facilitating and investing (not subsidizing!) role in the development of water as a business.

There are a number of challenges that we must tackle in the coming period to achieve a fully marketable model without public investment.

1. Water is actually very cheap. The market value of a cubic metre of clean water is approximately EUR 1, which makes it difficult to make money when the infrastructure is operational. This skews the relationship between revenue and investment, and means that the social benefits (profits, water quality and security, and sustainability) must be factored in to make the project feasible. This also justifies the public contribution to building the system.

2. In such a project, the public sector lacks the responsibility traditionally attributed to it. This requires a different form of governance than that which we are used to, for example with regard to lines of accountability, and it can be difficult to build bridges between the public and private sectors. But they still have a common interest in the availability of clean water: business needs it for manufacturing, and government for its social benefits.

Our solution

We recommend that the water industry and the Delta Programme look into those places and processes where water, because of its quality and availability, is of indispensable value to the public, agricultural and industrial sectors. Finding connections between water security, quality and availability should lead to reciprocal social and cost advantages in more areas.