Don’t turn Dutch water knowledge into an export product!

The Dutch government actively supports consultants, NGOs, water boards and universities to export Dutch water knowledge all around the world, from the United States to Mozambique or Vietnam. On the basis of her experience in education and research at IHE Delft, Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum argues that instead of commercializing knowledge we should invest in a genuine dialogue towards just and sustainable responses to big water challenges.

Wind mills at Kinderdijk pumped for centuries water from the polders to keep the Dutch feet dry (© Semina Kafle)

The Netherlands is literally build on water. After all, the majority of Dutch citizens live in places that 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 played a central role in Dutch society and therefore it is not surprising that the Dutch got to know water very well, as a friend and sometimes as an enemy.

This knowledge gives the Netherlands a strong base to contribute to solutions for global water challenges, from the melting of glaciers and the depletion of groundwater sources to the cleaning of oceans. It also gives the Dutch the responsibility to assist countries that are hit by water related disasters such as floods, outbreaks of water borne diseases or famine as result of prolonged droughts. However, promoting the Dutch water knowledge as a profitable export product is problematic for at least four reasons.

How we decide who’s a water expert – and who isn’t

Floating market on the Mekong River (© IHE Delft)

First of all the Netherlands is not the only country in the world in which water has played an important role throughout history. Think of societies in the deltas of the Ganges, Mekong, Amazon and Nile. Think of societies in the Atacama, the Sahara or the Great Victoria Desert. To be able survive in these harsh environments these people need to have a lot of knowledge on how to live with (too much or too little) water. So why is Dutch water knowledge particularly internationally renowned? And why do Dutch water experts travel all over the world? This certainly is not simply because of the applicability or scientific validity of Dutch water knowledge. It is also strongly shaped by unequal relations of power and uneven flows of funding.

Related to this is the question who we consider as an expert on water: a white male with a water engineering degree from a technical university in the Netherlands or also a female water engineer from Peru, who had to work so much harder to succeed in the masculine water sector? And how about the knowledge of an Indian anthropologist who knows in detail how water flows through the slums of Mumbai? And how do we value the knowledge of water users themselves? For instance the knowledge of smallholder farmers in Tanzania who constructed their own irrigation system and successfully operate it for nearly a century? Or the knowledge of women in Bangladesh who need to decide everyday which water source they can use best to provide their families with safe drinking water? Whose knowledge is recognized, and thus whose knowledge is worth paying money for, is the outcome of a political game in which relevant knowledge of others is often ignored.

Irrigation canals constructed by smallholder farmers in Tanzania (© Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum)

Selling or sharing experiences?

The second reason why it is problematic to profile Dutch water knowledge as expert product is because this knowledge risks to be romanticized. As seller, you want to praise your products in order to sell it, so it is not in your interest to acknowledge that it might not be perfect. However a genuine conversation about the challenges – about the things that did not go as you expected and about the difficult choices you had to make – is much more useful than pretending that everything is fine. Indeed the Dutch also struggle with several water dilemmas in which pro’s and con’s need to be carefully considered and for sure in the end not everybody will be happy with the outcome. For example, the groundwater levels in the polders and the dredging of the Westerschelde estuary to deepen the navigation canal are highly controversial issues in Dutch society. Even the famous Dutch water boards fear for their existence as time after time their added-value is being questioned. An honest conversation between two equal parties is much more beneficial for both parties than the nonsense marketing pitches of the supplier-client relationship.

We don’t know what we don’t know

The third reason is that the Dutch might know a lot about water, but they certainly do not have the truth (if the truth actually exists). Much of the contemporary knowledge on water originates from ad-hoc, improvised solutions to problems at hand and through long processes of trial and error the Dutch figured out what worked well in which situation. But they still – and most likely will always continue to – learn more every day. For instance, for centuries the Dutch have invested in enforcing the dykes but meanwhile they have come to the conclusion that “living with water’’ is more sustainable in the longer term. As result of these new insights, the Dutch are now setting back their flood defenses and inundating polders. Perhaps in twenty or fifty years they will come again to other conclusions and adjust their water management approach. There is thus a risk of selling a water-product that retrospectively might not (fully) work. Of course this risk applies for any product. However, in this case it might have huge negative implications like irreversible soil subsidence, polluted water sources, or increased inequities in the access to water. Even the Dutch, internationally praised for their knowledge on water, need to remain humble about what they know and acknowledge that they do not know what they do not know. From my own experience I know that this kind of modesty is often lacking in project acquisition efforts.

Problems and solutions are context specific

And last but not least, problems, knowledge and solutions are always context specific. What works for the Dutch might not be working elsewhere. But to make a product attractive for export it needs to be taken out of its context and made universally applicable in order to be attractive for as many countries as possible. However, decontextualizing water-related problems and proposed solutions can lead to undesired outcomes.

The highly segregated landscape in South Africa with on the left the lands of a white commercial farmer and on the right the plots of smallholder farmers in a former homeland (© Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum)

For example, in the Netherlands it might be desirable to organize stakeholder participation in water management on the basis of democratic principles, but in South-Africa, where the legacy of apartheid has created a highly segregated society, this does not work: the stakeholders meetings are dominated by a few white farmers and more than 25 years after the end of apartheid the distribution of water still favours them rather than the millions of smallholder farmers struggling for their subsistence. A different, more progressive, approach in which water is proactively reallocated to historically disadvantaged groups in society would perhaps work better in this situation. A solution that might be hard to imagine, and to justify, for Dutch water experts.

The responsibility of investing in dialogue

Instead of commercializing the very valuable Dutch water knowledge and profiling it as an profitable export product, I believe the Dutch – including myself – need to take their responsibilities that come with this privileged position. Rather than focusing on generating income from water projects, the Dutch need to invest in a genuine dialogue in which parties collaborate in finding sustainable solutions for water-related problems that do justice especially to those who are often deprived. In this dialogue there should to be sufficient space for different perspectives and alternative views. Fair and well- argued debates need to take place on the assumptions that are made and on the socio-political choices that are taken. Time and funding need to be available to design, test, monitor and critically reflect on different potential solutions. Sufficient trust needs to be created between the parties so that doubts and disappointments can be shared. And above all, in this dialogue modesty needs to be praised in order to embrace the uncertainties of dealing with water.

Collaboration between students from different cultural and professional backgrounds at IHE Delft (© IHE Delft)

Luckily, in organizations like IHE Delft we are slowly starting to realize that this dialogue will help us in the longer term to improve our work. Nowadays more space is created in research, education, and advisory projects to reflect on our own performance, to be humble in what we can achieve, and to establish sincere collaborations with different kinds of organizations. But we are not there yet and we cannot do it alone. So let us collaborate to make this way of working normal practice in the Dutch water sector. That might be a good export product!


Here you can to read a version of this post in Dutch, and here a shorter version published in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf.


Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum

Jeltsje Sanne Kemerink-Seyoum is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Water Governance at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. She has a combined background in civil engineering and social sciences and engages in research that foregrounds inequities in water distributions.

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