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Dutch water is in trouble: what’s going on? 

Dutch water management is applauded worldwide: our flood defense system (Delta Works) with storm surge barriers, our centuries old reclamation techniques and the ways in which we give more space to our rivers by moving dikes, enlarge floodplains and dig secondary channels. But recently, critique is on the rise, as we are neglecting our water management and will be in trouble soon. What’s going on?   

The newspapers are filled with it. Dutch water policy hasn’t received enough attention in recent years. What are the consequences of this? And should we worry?

The quality of our water is very bad 

Of all EU countries, the Dutch ground and surface water is dirtiest. Almost all our rivers, canals, streams, and lakes are heavily polluted. Only 1% of our waters comply with the European standards for clean and healthy water, standards that every EU-country should meet by 2027.  

That goal is still very far away. Our waters are full of pesticides and fertilizers from agriculture, chemicals from the industry and waste materials from households.  

This has far-reaching consequences. Problems can arise for public health as a result of dirty drinking water, nature is in decline (the number of plants and animals decreases) and if we continue down this path, we won’t be able to swim and fish in natural waters.  

Water shortages and droughts

We’re also risking water shortages in dry periods. This spring, we broke the drought record of 2007 after we hadn’t seen a drop of rain for weeks. Fortunately, this didn’t cause problems right away because we’d had so much rain in the months before.  

But persisting drought could definitely be problematic in the future. When our rivers are lower, salt water from the North Sea can enter, salinizing our rivers. Smaller streams and ditches will dry up much sooner, causing fish and other aquatic life to die. Also plants and trees can get into trouble when it’s dry and blue-green algae get the chance to flourish.  

Farmers are already suffering. Because of the wet spring they had to delay sowing and planting. And with current droughts the topsoil layer is drying fast. That’s problematic for young plants. Currently, watering is still permitted, but with persisting drought it may be forbidden.

Lax attitude causes problems 

We (or actually, our government) know our water is polluted and our water levels are too low. Still, we don’t act upon it.  

Newspaper Trouw published an article in May called: “Lax water management pushes The Netherlands into trouble, advice committee predicts”. Dutch policy is too non-binding, and as a result we won’t meet European targets.  

An example: the government wants to reduce tap water usage by ‘starting the dialog with households and companies’. That’s not going to help. Also, goals related to water are barely translated into laws and regulations in areas such as agriculture and nature, and spatial planning. Think of regulations on the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and the discharge of hazardous substances.  

Also, the executive agency of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) is running behind with restoring natural water systems and protecting drinking water sources.  

The Netherlands could come to a standstill 

Like with the nitrogen crisis (stikstofcrisis), also our bad water quality could stop or slow down projects in our country. If we don’t meet European targets, the court could decide to temporarily halt the construction of new houses or roads in certain areas, that farmers cannot water their land anymore and that factories that use a lot of water cannot get permits anymore.  

It’s time The Hague starts acting!  

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