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Article

Water Governance in the Netherlands  

M.L. (Marie Louise) Blankesteijn and W.D. (Wieke) Pot

Dutch water governance is world famous. It to a large extent determines the global public image of the Netherlands, with its windmills, polders, dikes and dams, and the eternal fight against the water, symbolized by the engineering marvel of the Delta Works. Dutch water governance has a history that dates back to the 11th century. Since the last 200 years, water governance has, however, undergone significant changes. Important historical events setting in motion longer-term developments for Dutch water governance were the Napoleonic rule, land reclamation projects, the Big Flood of 1953, the Afsluitdijk, the impoldering of the former Southern Sea, the ecological turn in water management, and the more integrated approach of “living with water.” In the current anthropocentric age, climate change presents a key challenge for Dutch water governance, as a country that for a large part is situated below sea level and is prone to flooding. The existing Dutch water governance system is multilevel, publicly financed, and, compared to many other countries, still relatively decentralized. The responsibilities for water management are shared among the national government and Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, provinces, regional water authorities, and municipalities. Besides these governmental layers, the Delta Commissioner is specifically designed to stimulate a forward-looking view when it comes to water management and climate change. With the Delta Commissioner and Delta Program, the Netherlands aims to become a climate-resilient and water-robust country in 2050. Robustness, adaptation, coordination, integration, and democratization are key ingredients of a future-proof water governance arrangement that can support a climate-resilient Dutch delta. In recent years, the Netherlands already has been confronted with many climate extremes and will need to transform its water management system to better cope with floods but even more so to deal with droughts and sea-levels rising. The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change show that more adaptive measures are needed. Such measures also require a stronger coordination between governmental levels, sectors, policies, and infrastructure investments. Furthermore, preparing for the future also requires engagement and integration with other challenges, such as the energy transition, nature conservation, and circular economy. To contribute to sustainability goals related to the energy transition and circular economy, barriers for technical innovation and changes to institutionalized responsibilities will need to be further analyzed and lifted. To govern for the longer term, current democratic institutions may not always be up to the task. Experiments with deliberative forms of democracy and novel ideas to safeguard the interests of future generations are to be further tested and researched to discover their potential for securing a more long-term oriented and integrated approach in water governance.

Article

Puzzles of Commitment, Compliance, and Defection in Water Resource Management  

John Waterbury

Collective action problems (CAPs) are ubiquitous in human undertakings including in the development and management of shared water resources. Various rational-actor models have been applied to understand their dynamics. These analyses tend to come to pessimistic conclusions based on the assumption of “free-riding” whereby any participant in a collective action (CA) will be motivated to benefit from the action without contributing to its costs. If all participants follow this logic, there will be no CA and hence no net benefit to the participants. This view assumes the logic of individual rationality. It does not adequately account for observed behavior, which may be driven by collective or group rationality. CA in water management and other domains has been initiated and sustained despite the temptation of free-riding. To understand why, it is necessary to analyze the dynamics of commitment, i.e., the initial collective undertaking; compliance, i.e., sustaining the initial commitment; and defection, when compliance breaks down. None of these variables is static. With respect to water, the technological means of its management constantly change so that the dynamics of compliance change as well. Technological change must be anticipated in the commitment phase. Just as important, cost/benefit analysis must encompass assessing payoffs in domains not related to water itself. These payoffs may not be part of the formal terms of commitment but must inform the compliance process. When the process unravels, “water wars” may result although that has been a rare outcome.

Article

Field-Level Irrigation  

Kiril Manevski and Mathias Neumann Andersen

Field irrigation is the largest consumer of freshwater in the world covering 63 million hectares in the 1900s to 300 million hectares in the early 2000s to provide a multitude of benefits and ecosystem services to people around the globe, such as consistent food supply, higher crop productivity, and shared resource collectivism. Field irrigation intensifies land use mostly in the arid and the semiarid regions where precipitation cannot fully satisfy human and crop water demands. Climate change impacts the distribution and the timing of water availability into humid regions as well through increases in drought frequency and intensity, further augmenting the demand for irrigation. However, designing and operating irrigation infrastructure and scheduling practices for an agricultural region requires sound contemporary and historical knowledge of the local circumstances vis-à-vis humans, crops, soils, hydrology, and climate. Sub-Saharan Africa stands as a large-scale narrative of poorly performing field irrigation against decades of investments due to designs exclusive to the socioeconomic ecosystems. Optimal water allocation in the water–energy–environment–food nexus to achieve the greatest social and economic benefit for the region invariably a task of continuous cocreation between many actors. Therefore, field irrigation remains a challenging project and most of the agricultural water use worldwide—both from groundwater and surface water—remains suboptimal in terms of design, water allocation, and monitoring for farmers, communities, and regulators. Many diversions of surface water for irrigation in both economically developed and developing countries are small-scale temporary infrastructures in and outside official plans and permits, which altogether results in severe aquifer depletion worldwide with negative impacts on food safety, economy, environment, and society. Traditional surface flooding is the dominant mode of irrigation globally and mostly applied on new agricultural fields, whereas water-saving irrigation methods are practiced on fewer and older fields. Water-saving technologies involve either scheduling of regulated deficit irrigation or local water storage to optimize crop water supply, which may be combined with drip irrigation, biodegradable soil amendments to retain soil water, and plastic mulches to minimize evaporation, whereas the use of partial root zone drying and biochar mostly remain at the experimental stage. Global analyses over the late 20th and early 21st century find no water saving by water-saving technologies at field scale because increased return flow from newly irrigated fields surpasses the reduced soil evaporation from old, irrigated fields, whereas regionally, return flow to fresh aquifers is a benefit rather than a loss, which results in some water savings. At the same time, increased crop transpiration exceeds regional water savings, which explains the paradox between the wide application of water-saving technologies and more severe regional water shortage. With nonscientific decisions on when and where to irrigate practiced by most farmers worldwide, scheduling remains the top priority task in field irrigation, as both too little and too much water leads to yield decreases and loss of nutrients to the environment. Where water is abundant, scheduling aims to keep crop transpiration and yield at a maximum with minimum use of irrigation water. In dryer areas, this luxury can rarely be sustained unless the irrigation area and therefore production is reduced. Instead, regulated deficit irrigation may be practiced on drought-tolerant crops and cultivars. Regulated deficit irrigation seeks to limit crop transpiration to a fraction of the maximum during less drought-sensitive growth stages. In this way, crop water use efficiency increases, and yield per m3 of water rather than m2 of land is maximized. Remote sensing of soil and crops through satellite and aerial multispectral and thermal products have the potential to enhance irrigation scheduling by precisely quantifying and distinguishing crop transpiration (beneficial water consumption) from soil evaporation (nonbeneficial water loss) in space and time and to facilitate regulated deficit irrigation and other water-saving measures. However, irrigation management significantly falls behind in adapting state of the art information and communication technologies. With a global rise in frequency and duration of droughts, the lack of irrigation infrastructure in humid regions and of water availability in semiarid regions induces enormous losses in agricultural production and social well-being and unveils an urgent need for a macrolevel drought governance approach in order to strengthen multisectoral water management and mitigate climate change damage to human and natural assets.

Article

Policy Analysis and Investment Appraisal in the Water Sector  

Edoardo Borgomeo

Since the earliest forms of human settlement, water resources have shaped societies and have been integral to their proper functioning. In developing—and maintaining—their relationship with water, societies have relied on myriad approaches to appraise options to manage water, that is, identifying expectations and objectives related to water and choosing the course of action to achieve them. This article describes some methodological issues of conventional approaches for policy analysis and investment appraisal in the water sector and then charts a way forward to further strengthen them to achieve water security in the Anthropocene. Despite their clear benefits to society, demonstrated by extensive application to address water-related challenges around the world, conventional approaches to appraising policy options and investments suffer from some limitations. First, appraisal typically focuses on inputs and outputs, not paying enough attention to the outcomes and services that societies expect to obtain from water-related development. Second, appraisal methods still largely consider water as a plentiful resource, paying little attention to its opportunity cost and its multiple values to different users, including ecosystems. Third, most appraisals still ignore behavioural responses and societal dynamics arising from water-related policies and investments. A fourth limitation relates to the deterministic nature of appraisal that fails to properly account for uncertainties and interdependencies. Finally, appraisal still largely focuses on individual projects rather than portfolios of options, largely privileging technological fixes to respond to narrowly defined water-related challenges. Methodological advances in the appraisal of policy options and investments provide a significant opportunity to overcome these limitations and build a more robust and inclusive platform to plan for water security. While further refinements are required, particularly to achieve deeper and more formal integration across disciplines, attention needs to focus on application and uptake of these methodological advances to address urgent water security challenges.

Article

Water and Spatial Planning in the Netherlands: The Latent Potential of Spatial Planning for Flood Resilience  

Nikki Brand and Wil Zonneveld

In February 1953, an extremely powerful northwest storm surge combined with spring tide led to serious floods in a number of countries around the North Sea. No country was hit as badly as the Netherlands. In the southwest of the country, dozens of dikes were breached, leading to over 1,800 casualties. At the time of the 1953 disaster, a government-appointed committee was working on an advisory report about the desired future spatial development of the most urbanized western part of the country, a region largely below sea level. Responding to the 1953 disaster, the committee discussed whether urban development in deep polders should be avoided. The conclusion was that what is best in terms of the desired urban morphology should prevail. This is indeed what happened when the government had to make a choice about where to develop new towns (1960s–1980s) and, in the next stage, where to locate new housing estates in and around cities (1990s–2000s). Near floods along the main rivers of the country in 1992 and 1995 opened a window of opportunity for a series of major changes in flood risk management and in spatial planning and design, respectively. A massive program called Room for the River was carried out, which included more than 30 projects designed by multidisciplinary teams of civil engineers, planners, and spatial designers. Parallel and follow-up programs were carried out in which spatial design again played a role. The concept of risk was redefined in law, leading to more stringent protection norms for densely populated areas—again, a spatial turn in flood risk management. When flood risk management started to take a decisive spatial turn in the 1990s, spatial planning began to change as well, becoming more sensitive to issues related to water management and flood risks. One of these changes involved the mandatory use of a water test in (local) plan making. The continuation of the trend to give greater weight to flood risks became interrupted as the multilevel arrangement of planning in the Netherlands started to change from 2010 onward. This was largely the result of the neoliberal ambition to decentralize and deregulate planning. One main effect was that the government no longer took a leading role in locational choices regarding where to build new housing estates outside cities and towns. By the end of 2021, the government-appointed Delta commissioner issued a stark warning that over 80% of the houses that will be built by 2030 are situated in less desirable locations. This and other effects of the downscaling of planning competencies made the government decide to start a trajectory to partly recentralize planning. There are two contradictory objectives, however, claimed by different government departments: the production of new homes as quickly as possible and the ambition to make water and soil leading in future choices. Bringing flood risk management and spatial planning together means that locational choices and the spatial design of localities have to move in tandem.

Article

The Allocation of Groundwater: From Superstition to Science  

Burke W. Griggs

Groundwater is a critical natural resource, but the law has always struggled with it. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the common law developed several doctrines to allocate groundwater among competing users. The groundwater revolution of the mid-20th century produced an explosive growth in pumping worldwide—and quickly exposed the flaws of these doctrines. Legal rules predicated on land and on surface waters could not meet the challenges posed by the common-pool groundwater resource: those of understanding groundwater dynamics, quantifying the impacts of pumping on other water rights, and devising satisfactory remedies. Unfettered by received property restraints, pumping on an industrial, aquifer-wide scale depleted and contaminated aquifers, regardless of doctrine. The groundwater revolution motivated significant legal developments. Starting in the 1970s, the Supreme Court of the United States adapted its methods for resolving interstate water disputes to include the effects of groundwater pumping. This jurisprudence has fundamentally influenced international groundwater law, including the negotiation of trans-boundary aquifer agreements. Advances in hydrogeology and computer groundwater modeling have enabled states and parties to evaluate the effects of basin-wide pumping. Nonetheless, difficult legal and governance problems remain. Which level of government—local, state, or national—should exercise jurisdiction over groundwater? What level of pumping qualifies as “safe yield,” especially when the aquifer is overdrawn? How do the demands of modern environmental law and the public trust doctrine affect groundwater rights? How can governments satisfy long-neglected claims to water justice made by Indigenous and minority communities? Innovations in groundwater management provide promising answers. The conjunctive management of surface and groundwater can stabilize water supplies, improve water quality, and protect ecosystems. Integrated water resources management seeks to holistically manage groundwater to achieve social and economic equity. Water markets can reward water conservation, attract new market participants, and encourage the migration of groundwater allocations to more valuable uses, including environmental uses. The modern law of groundwater allocation combines older property doctrines with 21st-century regulatory ideals, but the mixture can be unstable. In nations with long-established water codes such as the United States, common-law Anglophone nations, and various European nations, groundwater law has evolved, if haltingly, to incorporate permitting systems, environmental regulation, and water markets. Elsewhere, the challenges are extreme. Long-standing calls for groundwater reform in India remain unheeded as tens of millions of unregulated tube wells pump away. In China, chronic groundwater mismanagement and aquifer contamination belie the roseate claims of national water law. Sub-Saharan nations have enacted progressive groundwater laws, but poverty, racism, and corruption have maintained grim groundwater realities. Across the field, experts have long identified the central problems and reached a rough consensus about the most effective solutions; there is also a common commitment to secure environmental justice and protect groundwater-dependent ecosystems. The most pressing legal work thus requires building practical pathways to reach these solutions and, most importantly, to connect the public with the groundwater on which it increasingly depends.

Article

The Development Path of Urban Water and Sanitation Tariffs and Subsidies: A Conceptual Framework  

Dale Whittington, Marcus Wishart, David Kaczan, Hua Wang, Xiawei Liao, and Si Gou

The provision of universal, high-quality piped water and sanitation services on a financially sustainable basis continues to elude many urban areas globally. Water services suffer from political, technical, and financial “disequilibria,” in which governments are challenged to improve services, households are unwilling or unable to pay to cover the increased costs associated with those services, and both production and consumption efficiency remains low due to insufficient capital investment, low operating budgets, and poorly designed tariffs. Cities typically move along a water development path from low- to high-quality service provision, with movement between phases facilitated by shifts in these disequilibria. In the first phase, water supply coverage increases but quality of service and efficiency of consumption and production stagnates, trapped by insufficient government transfers and low tariffs. In the second phase, economic growth facilitates increased revenues, allowing for investments in service quality and increasing access to improved sanitation. Production efficiency improves, but consumption efficiency remains low due to weak price signals and poorly targeted subsidies, and environmental quality often degrades. In the third phase—which remains aspirational for many cities—governments and citizens demand improved environmental quality as well as improved service quality. Investments are made to improve the resilience of supply, and subsidies are more carefully targeted toward the poor. China demonstrates many of these patterns, with variation across cities reflecting different levels of development. There are, however, some differences that are a consequence of the country’s centrally planned economy prior to 1978. Reforms underway in China highlight the challenges of achieving this “third phase” urban water policy. These include revisions to the existing increasing block tariffs to improve financial sustainability, increased use of information provision to improve consumption efficiency, and asset management and investment planning that weighs the benefits and costs of new capital investments in the context of climate change.

Article

Ecosystem Benefits of Large Dead Wood in Freshwater Environments  

Ellen Wohl

Large wood in freshwater environments is downed, dead wood pieces in river channels, floodplains, wetlands, and lakes. Large wood was historically much more abundant in freshwaters, but decades to centuries of deforestation and direct wood removal have decreased wood loads—volumes of large wood per unit area—in freshwaters around the world. The widespread public perception that large wood is undesirable in freshwater environments contrasts with scientific understanding of the beneficial effects of large wood. Large wood tends to increase the spatial heterogeneity of hydraulics, substrate, channel planform, and the floodplain and hyporheic zone in rivers. This equates to greater habitat diversity and refugia for organisms, as well as energy dissipation and storage of materials during floods, which can increase the resilience of the river to disturbances such as wildfire, drought, and flooding. Similarly, wood in lakes increases lakeshore and lakebed heterogeneity of hydraulics, substrate, habitat, nutrient uptake, and storage of particulate organic matter and sediment. Large wood in rivers and lakes provides an array of vital ecosystem functions, and both individual species and biotic communities are adversely affected by a lack of wood in rivers and lakes that have been managed in a way that reduces wood loads. River and lake management are now more likely to include protection of existing large wood and active reintroduction of large wood, but numerous questions remain regarding appropriate targets for wood loads in different environmental settings, including potential threshold wood loads necessary to create desired effects. Large wood can also directly and indirectly enhance carbon storage in freshwater environments, but this storage remains poorly quantified.

Article

International Water Law and Its Developing Role in Conflict and Cooperation Over Transboundary Water Resources  

Susanne Schmeier

International water law plays a key role in guiding states’ behavior over water resources they share. Substantive and procedural principles provide an ex ante framework based on which states can interact in a manner that prevents or mitigates potential conflicts and fosters cooperation and its benefits while supporting the sustainable use and management of these transboundary resources. Through the international water law regime, cooperation has largely prevailed over conflict in the world’s transboundary basins. Nonetheless, international water law—and thus also its role in conflict prevention and cooperation promotion—faces various challenges as populations and economies grow, the climate changes, and states seem to increasingly value short-term unilateral considerations over long-term multilateralism gains. This will challenge key principles, such as the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization and the principle of no significant harm, and their implementation in different basins, possibly triggering new disagreements between riparian states. It will therefore be important for international water law to remain adaptive to change and ensure the long-term cooperative and sustainable governance of water resources shared between states.

Article

Water Risks and Rural Development in Coastal Bangladesh  

Sonia Hoque and Mohammad Shamsudduha

Rural populations in river deltas experience multiple water risks, emerging from intersecting anthropogenic and hydroclimatic drivers of change. For more than 20 million inhabitants of coastal Bangladesh—living on the lower reaches of the Ganges–Brahmaputra–Meghna mega-delta—these water risks relate to access to safe drinking water, management of water resources for farm-based livelihoods, and protection from water-related hazards. To address these risks, water policies in the 20th century emphasized infrastructure development, ranging from embankments for flood protection to handpumps for rural water supply. However, interventions designed to promote aggregate economic growth often resulted in sociospatial inequalities in risk distribution, particularly when policy-makers and practitioners failed to recognize the complex dynamics of human–environment interactions in the world’s most hydromorphologically active delta. In Bangladesh’s southwestern region, construction of the polder system (embanked islands interlaced with tidal rivers) since the late 1960s has augmented agricultural production by protecting low-lying land from diurnal tidal action and frequent storm surges. However, anthropogenic modification of the natural hydrology, emulating the Dutch dyke system, has altered the sedimentation patterns and resulted in severe waterlogging since the 1980s. Contrary to their intended purpose of keeping saline water out, the polders also facilitated growth of export-oriented brackish water shrimp aquaculture, resulting in widespread environmental degradation and social inequalities from shifting power dynamics between large and small landholding farmers. Throughout the 1990s, there were several incidences of violent conflicts between the local communities and government authorities, as well as between different farmer groups. Waterlogged communities demanded to revert to indigenous practices of controlled flooding. Despite being formally adopted as a policy response, the implementation of tidal river management by the government has only been partially successful owing to bureaucratic delays, unfair compensation, and design flaws. Similarly, antishrimp movements gained momentum in several polders to ban the deliberate flooding of cropland with saline water. These narratives of conflict and cooperation demonstrate the complexities of policy outcomes, the unequal distribution of water risks, and the need to integrate local knowledge in decision-making. Social and spatial inequalities are also prevalent in access to safe drinking water owing to heterogeneity in groundwater salinity and infrastructure investments. Public investments are skewed toward low-salinity areas where tubewells are feasible, while high-salinity areas are often served by uncoordinated donor investments in alternative technologies, such as small piped schemes, reverse osmosis plants, and pond sand filters, and household self-supply through shallow tubewells and rainwater harvesting. These struggles to meet daily water needs from multiple sources pose uncertain and unequal water quality and affordability risks to coastal populations. The path-dependent sequences of infrastructure and institutional interventions that shaped the development trajectory of coastal Bangladesh exemplify the complexities of managing water risks and varied responses by public and private actors. While structural solutions still dominate the global water policy discourse, there is increased recognition of the nonlinearity of risks and responses, as well as the need to incorporate adaptive decision-making processes with room for social learning and uncertainties.