The time to influence the Dutch water democracy is NOW (20 March)!

On Wednesday 20 March 2019 the Netherlands will vote to elect representatives in Dutch Water Boards. The unique element of these elections is that every adult resident within the borders of the water authority is allowed to vote! Usually at IHE Delft we work to influence water management abroad, but this Wednesday our international students and employees, along with their Dutch colleagues, are able to influence water management in the Netherlands with their vote. Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum, Jaap Evers and Hermen Smith describe the debate hosted by IHE Delft to inform about the upcoming elections.

To see what is up for choice during these elections, IHE Delft organized a debate between the party leaders of the five biggest parties in the current board of water authority Delfland. Delfland is the water authority responsible for water management in the south-western part of the province of South Holland, encompassing Delft, The Hague, the north-western part of Rotterdam and many municipalities between these cities. It also includes large areas of agricultural land and a part of the Dutch coast.

What are the water boards?

Before we dive into the debate itself, let us introduce quickly what the water boards are about, what their responsibilities are, why they organize elections, and what the members of the water board negotiating and deciding on. To start off; what is the difference between a water board and a water authority? Although we hear these terms often interchangeably, the difference is relatively simple. The water board is the council of the water authority. Just like the municipal council is related to the municipality.

The water boards are the oldest democratic institutions of the Netherlands, they are older than our sovereign state. The water authority Delfland was founded in 1289! The Dutch Republic of the Seven United Provinces declared its independency in 1581, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands is “just” over two hundred years old (since 1815). Around 1950 the Netherlands had more than 2,500 water (or polder) boards. Most of these boards consisted of a group of local water users (mostly farmers, but historically also monasteries, churches, and other large land owners) who together would take care of water management and its related infrastructure in their watershed (often a polder). From the 1990s, with the rise of new public management and IWRM, there has been a rapid “professionalization” and merging of these water organizations. Today, the Netherlands has twentyone water boards which steer and oversee the activities of their water authorities, in charge of regional water management and waste water treatment (i.e. not including coastal infrastructural works and management of major rivers – which are managed at the national level).

But why do water boards need to be democratic institutions? Simply said, because they are allowed to raise their own taxes: some 240 million euro paid by 1.2 million inhabitants and businesses of Delfland. Because they raise their own taxes, democratic boards are required to decide on what these tax incomes are used for, and democratic accountability mechanisms need to be in place to check and balance on these expenditures. Water authorities in the Netherlands are almost completely financially self-sustainable.

What is good water management? The debate is open

Assuming everybody is in favor of good water management with sturdy and safe dikes, good quality surface water and treatment of our sewage, so why and what to choose? The question here is of course what do you find good water management and which water board parties relate best to your own ideas and priorities. Money is never sufficient to do everything, so what to prioritize and where to invest in remains the question. That is why we organized this debate, so that our students – and everybody else who is interested – know better what each party stands for and therefore able to make a well informed choice at the ballot box.

Our event had three parts. We started with two presentations, the first was by Delta Commissioner Mr. Peter Glas, who amongst others reflected on his work for the OECD Water Governance Initiative and the report “Water governance in the Netherlands: fit for the future?”. Although this research report was very positive about the Dutch water authority system, another major finding was that the Dutch citizens have a low “water awareness”, and that principles like polluter-pays can be better implemented. Next, the dike reeve (the chair of the water board) Mr. Piet-Hein Daverveldt, presented the main dilemmas for the water board to take decisions on. The setting of water levels in the canals (farmers generally prefer low levels in winter so they can access the land with machinery, while to reduce subsidence of the soil and to maintain polders as vital ecosystems it is important to keep water levels high, especially in peat polders), what to do with medicine remnants (controlling at the source versus treating at the wastewater treatment plant), opening dykes and dunes for recreational use, how to deal with algae blooms in recreational waters, and how to deal with peak run-offs in erratic rainfall events (subsidizing green of urban areas to slow down stormwater run-off; technically the responsibility of municipalities).

Our colleague Jaap Evers presenting the opinion poll

During the second part we measured the opinions of our audience by a live poll. We selected five contested statements, inspired by the statements from the online vote-support tool Mijn Stem , on which people could respond via their mobile phones by either agreeing or disagreeing. For every statement we received more than 100 responses from the audience, and the responses show that the audience was definitely not thinking the same. If you are curious about the specific statements and the poll results, you can check this document.

FIve different political agenda for the water board

After this intermezzo we continued with the highlight of the evening: the election debate between the leaders of the political parties with the largest number of seats currently in the Delfland water board. This is also the place to express our appreciation of these people, who all very enthusiastically replied when we invited them for this debate, even though it does not happen regularly that they are asked to debate in English. To start the debate all five political leaders were asked to introduce themselves, there parties, and their main objectives and priorities for the water board. After this we invited them to debate in pairs on five different statements that we had chosen such that the differences between the parties would become apparent. It resulted in five lively debates.

Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum chairing the debate between the five party leaders

The first debate showed that Water Natuurlijk (the environmental party) want to raise the water level where possible to support the aquatic environment. The CDA (the Christian party, who traditionally represents the agricultural community) where in favor of having water levels that support agriculture (lower water tables), even though both agreed that such decisions depend always on the local context (the potential quality of nature and the economic importance of agriculture or the damage caused by soil subsidence). The second statement highlighted the difference between the AWP (the independent technocratic party) who want to deal with medicine remnants at the wastewater treatment plant and the PvdA (the labor party) who claims this is yet not an important issue for the water board to deal with and prefers to take measures that support controlling medicine effluents at the source. The third statement revealed the difference between the VVD (the liberal party) who stated that every resident of the water authority need to pay their water taxes, while socio-economic policies to compensate minimum-income households are the responsibility of the municipalities and the state. The PvdA (the labor party) disagreed stating that the water authority should exempt these households from tax payments as it would reduce the administrative burden and avoids unnecessary anxiety for these households. In the fourth debate we asked to prioritize on additional funding on (a) biodiversity, (b) cultural heritage, (c) improvement of water quality of recreational waters, (d) rain proofing urban areas, (e) sustainable energy generation. This statement actually showed the difficulty, as both parties in this debate (AWP and CDA) expressed all issues to be of importance and both gave priority to rain proofing urban areas. However, when asked to further prioritize where more money should be spend on the AWP (the independent technocratic party) prioritized biodiversity while the CDA (the Christian party) expressed higher importance to recreational waters. The final statement was close to our heart, as we asked the debaters to express their position whether water boards should proactively sharing their knowledge and expertise with countries in the Global South. The representative of VVD (the liberal party) clearly expressed that according to him development cooperation is the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: the Ministry can pay the water authorities for development cooperation, but water authority taxes should be used for the core tasks of the water authority. The party leader of Water Natuurlijk (the environment party) disagreed and stated that the water authority should actively promote its knowledge and expertise as they know best in which places in the world where they can be of added-value.

The message is in the bottle

After this debate the audience had the possibility to ask a few questions to the debaters. It was a great see that students from India and Mexico asked questions that helped them to make up their mind about whom to vote for in the upcoming elections for the Delfland water board. To close this event all party leaders got one final minute to pitch their party and to convince the audience to vote for them. As a souvenir of the event they also got a bottle with a sock ii it: the meanings of such unique bottles can be many, but the joint final message by all political leaders was clear: please come out and VOTE on MARCH 20 for the Delfland water board elections, it is your opportunity to steer Dutch water flows!


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1 Response

  1. 15/07/2019

    […] used to be inundated. And also the Dutch governance structure is rooted in the polders: in fact the water boards existed centuries before the central government was established. Thus dealing with water always […]

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