Published: Water civilization

After a few years (and 22 revisions), our paper* has been published!

In “Water civilization: The evolution of the Dutch drinking water sector” Bene Colenbrander and I trace the history of policy, technology, and cultural changes that took the Netherlands from a country with no drinking water infrastructure to one with a world-class system.

The abstract explains:

Dutch drinking water companies now deliver safe affordable water to the entire population, but this result was not planned. It emerged, rather, from an evolutionary process in which various pressures on the commons resulted in changes to drinking water systems that addressed old concerns but uncovered new problems. Our analytical narrative traces this problem-solution-new problem pattern through four eras in which a common-pool dilemma is addressed by a private-good solution (1850-1880), a club-good solution (1880-1910) and a public-good solution (1910-1950) before returning to a private-good solution in the last 1950-1990 era. Actions, like the dates just given, were not always exact or effective, as the process was shaped by changing social norms regarding the distribution of costs and benefits from improved water services. This Dutch history is unique, but its insights can help improve drinking water services elsewhere.

This academic paper of 36 pages might seem irrelevant for a non-Dutch reader or daunting for a lay reader, but we suggest you give it a go. For non-Dutch, there are lessons on the difficulty of change and how interest groups fight over money and public health. For non-academics, this paper explores  the complexity of changes that took over 100 years to implement. 

One of the paper’s key features is our model describing how drinking water service could be described as one of four types of “economic good,” depending on conditions. This model is not new, but our application to this history is novel and (we think) helpful in explaining how various barriers arose or were overcome. It took quite some time to make it simple and many words to describe how it works, but we think that readers can learn a lot from the model, which can be used elsewhere. We hope you agree!

My one-handed conclusion is that it’s always difficult to implement systems that benefit all at a cost to a minority, but also that there are many cases (as with drinking water) where implementation creates net benefits. The difference between communities that can change and those that cannot is the difference between life and death, between development and failure.

* You can download a PDF from my personal site or get it via the publisher’s webpage [paywall/login].

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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