Water scarcity AND abundance

Ezra writes*

One might think: what is a Dutch city like Dordrecht doing on a blog about water scarcity? The city sits on an island in the Rhine Delta and is literally surrounded by water!

Dordrecht’s long history is inevitably connected with water, which has given it prosperity and sorrow. Now, the next stage in its history will be marked by a lurking crisis: water scarcity in its abundance. This blogpost will provide a short overview of the recent developments surrounding the drinking water problems in the Netherlands with a particular interest in Dordrecht’s paradoxical situation.

In 2021, the Dutch Waterschappen (Water Boards) and drinking water companies (DWC) called for a renewed view on water: water policies were reaching their limits and water quality and quantity already were under pressure. The Waterschappen appealed to the newly forming government to create a climate-robust water-system plan. The Netherlands is renowned for its water drainage strategy but must change this into a water retaining strategy because of reoccurring droughts. Up until then, the government had not paid attention to this developing crisis, since its priorities were elsewhere.

The year after, multiple concerning reports were published. One report, published by Deltares, warned the water sector about the degrading quality of the Meuse and the decreasing water availability. Deltares found that “in all researched climate scenarios […] longer periods of low discharge” will eventually occur, endangering the drinking water supply. In these periods of low discharge, the river is also extra vulnerable to heavy pollution, therefore raising risks for 7 million people — including the inhabitants of Dordrecht. According to the drinking water company Evides, outdated pollution permits have to be updated and the enforcement has to become more strict. The low discharge does not only affect drinking water, it also affects local agriculture, shipping, and industry. It, furthermore, causes salination of the soil and the rivers, according to Geert Slijkhuis (via personal interview) of Waterschap Hollandse Delta. The Waterschap has to keep the groundwater level high to avoid subsidence in the city. Preferably, they use fresh water since agrarians also use the land. However, it occurs more and more that they have to use salt and polluted water, thereby affecting the soil quality.

Another report, published by Vewin (Vereniging van Waterbedrijven) and later backed up by the RIVM (Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu), proved that if changes were not made quickly in the DWC drinking water shortage would occur before 2030. This has to do with several things: degrading water quality, decreased water supply, and steady increases in population, economic growth, and urban areas. Both also emphasised the dangers of multiple bottlenecks in the purification process and storage. To solve these problems the DWCs need to find alternative water sources, regulations and permits have to be expanded, and investments need to be secured for new production, purification and distribution possibilities.

Bottom Line: Scarcity does not only occur when there is an absence of a particular commodity, it also occurs when the commodity, in this case water, is made or becomes more unsuitable for its purposes. In the case of Dordrecht, water is abundant, but a scarcity of usable water is starting to develop, due to a decrease in the quantity and quality of the Meuse’s water, bottlenecks in the purification process, and an increase in, among others, population. If future governance is not changed, this process will only be accelerated.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

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

2 thoughts on “Water scarcity AND abundance”

  1. Hi Ezra,

    Thanks or the article. The story line is interesting and important. What would make it more compelling for me would be a use of a visual – such as a chart showing one or more trends and when they would cross a critical threshold.

    The sentence “Dordrecht’s long history is inevitably connected with water, which has given it prosperity and sorrow” is intriguing, but I am unsure why water has provided prosperity and sorrow.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thank you for your comment! When it comes to charts or graphs there hasn’t really been made one yet whereby a certain threshold can be reached (or I haven’t found it yet…). This is due to the severe unpredictability of the situation. For instance, in 2022 there was a severe drought in the Netherlands. River levels were historically low and agriculture, industry, and shipping were heavily affected. The level of the Meuse and Rhine was so low that boats could no longer sail on the rivers. In contrast, this year, especially the past few months, have been the wettest months in years! Dikes and dams had to be strengthened and floodplains were being “prepared”. The river levels are higher than usual and a few weeks ago, with storm Ciarán, there were serious concerns about the water management.

      These big ups and downs make it hard to predict when a certain threshold will be reached, but the drinking water companies usually use 2030 as a reference point. This map (https://www.vewin.nl/SiteCollectionImages/Nieuws%202022/kaartA_def300-1.pdf) of the Netherlands shows the areas of the 10 different drinking water companies. The darker the red, the sooner reforms have to be made, otherwise shortages will occur. The region of Dordrecht is a very light red, indicating that reforms aren’t necessary (yet). Evides has recently finished some mega projects when it comes to drinking water security. However, this region also has one of the quickest-growing populations. The more people, the more water is necessary. In how far this will become a problem, only future research can tell. According to the RIVM, the total drinking water use of the Netherlands could even grow from 1.200 m^3/year to 1.524 m^3/year…

      Then, to briefly answer your latter question, Dordrecht has known prosperity through water because of the trade that was made possible and the riches that came with it. The city is one of the oldest of the Netherlands and even was considered to become the capital of the country. Dordrecht has known sorrows through water, because of several floods. The most well-known is the Saint-Elisabeth’s Flood in 1421. It completely wiped out the surrounding villages and towns and reshaped the rivers and this part of the Netherlands. Dordrecht only survived this flood, because its walls offered protection from the water.

      I hope this has offered some additional information!

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