Monday, October 10, 2011

Water Management as Political Choice

Last Tuesday my darling husband invited me on a date. Well... a sort-of date. He's an alumnus of Universiteit Twente, and to celebrate their 50th anniversary they are holding a series of lectures in all the major cities across The Netherlands. The lecture we went to was called "Water Management as Political Choice" presented by Prof. dr. M.M.R. Kuks.

As an event, it was attended by about 20 people, it was well organized and in a location that was both pleasant and easy to find.

I was hoping for a lecture with much more emphasis on political philosophy, but what we got was interesting too. The lecture began with images of last year's floods in Twente and newspaper articles criticizing the water management. As you probably know, most of The Netherlands is below sea level, so of course water management is a big issue. The lecturer went on and talked about some of the creative solutions they've found, such as arranging with homeowners whose land is on a floodplain to refrain from building on those areas, buyouts for farmers whose land is regularly flooded, and reallocating space for rising water.

Some of the problems have been caused by building cities in areas that in hindsight are needed to direct water flow, some by the sheer increase in built-up areas, and some by the unique geography and development of The Netherlands. Water management itself is often pointed to as a way of understand Dutch culture. Let me explain.

The Netherlands has repeatedly claimed more land, either from the sea or from lakes, by building dikes or dams, and pumping the water out. An entire province was created this way. Four hundred years ago Amsterdam was still under water! Every person in all the regions had a vested interest in making sure the dikes would hold in case of a flood. So each person cooperated with each other person to maintain the dike and protect everyone. In this scenario, everyone is equally dependent on every other person, creating an equality that permeates the society today. After all, environmental factors do not respect political boundaries or wealth. In this way, The Netherlands grew from groups of communities to a country, all sharing a sense of responsibility and equality.

The lecture discussed the challenges in handling the existing challenges and in preventing future ones. Some cities have not been able to grow because of the risk of creating or increasing water management problems.

The last few minutes were spent discussing the political viewpoints: economic, expert, and government. Essentially, there are those three ways to determine roles and responsibilities in water management. First, we can say it's an economic problem. If your business, farm or house floods, your problem. Second, we can say it's a problem for the experts. The people with the most knowledge and expertise should come up with the solution. And finally, we can say the government should solve the problem. What else do we pay taxes for?

Alas, there was so little attention on this part, the part that I (of course) found most interesting!

Here's my evaluation of water management as a political choice.

If we say flooding is the problem of the person or business affected, that disproportionately puts individuals at risk. Most businesses' assets ARE individuals, and those that are not, such as buildings, equipment and vehicles, require the industrial development that is in part responsible for the changes in water flow as well as the increased risk of loss. For example, although we all appreciate the income we earn from our jobs, most of us have to travel on roads to get to work, goods are transported in vehicles on those same roads, and the buildings and roads affect water flow. So the business assets that could be damaged in a flood are in part responsible for the damage in the first place. The individual assets that could be damaged, such as homes and personal vehicles, are also in part responsible for the changes in water flow, but obviously each single homeowner that is completely wiped out financially due to a flood was less proportionately responsible than any single business building. In addition, the potential for total loss is more likely for an individual than for a business... although the caveat is that the term for business encompass relatively mid- to big-businesses, and not the self-employed or very small business owners. I also have completely skipped over farms.

If we leave the problem to the experts, then we may get a wonderful solution that can't realistically be applied as experts may have all the theoretical answers and yet not enough practical information about limitations, applied use etc. Simply bringing in an expert also gives us no information about who funds a potential solution, what the budget is, or what can realistically be implemented.

The third option presented was to leave the problem to government. The government so far has made some concrete progress. They have established a table of areas of high to low risk for floods, and set targets as to how often a flood in that area can reasonably be tolerated. The inhabitants of the areas are asked to cooperate in a variety of ways to limit the potential damage during those times. In some cases certain cities or regions have not been able to expand as they originally planned due to the information and education they've received about the potential for increased risk by changing the environment in key areas. Yet the government also faces budget issues, the government is elected and that always means that elected officials' priorities are whatever will keep them in office, and the government may or may not have access to experts to develop reasonable plans and solutions.

My route, because I like cooperation, would be a blend of the three. Obviously individuals and businesses stepping up through environmentally responsible development and use of resources, in addition to their contribution to the budget for implementation of long-term, far-reaching solutions through taxes is important. Just as important is consultation to understand current land use, possible adjustments and changes, and opportunities for creative solutions.

Experts are needed for their, well, expert advice. They need to be at the table to gather as much information as possible, to gain insight into current and projected needs, and to balance urgent with long-term priorities. They also need to share information, educate and collaborate in developing new approaches to water management.

And finally, the government is needed to set the priority, organize and facilitate the process, and ultimately arrange financing.

See, we CAN do it all, if we do it together!!

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