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Prof. Johan Woltjer: ‘Scarcity of fresh water major threat to Dutch economy’

11 April 2012

Alongside the struggle against the rising level of the salty sea, the Netherlands needs to prepare for a watery fight on another front; the preservation of fresh water stocks. If we do not start investing heavily to resolve this issue, the industry will run out of fresh water. Flower and fruit growers will face difficulties, as will beer brewers, metal processors and other industries that use large amounts of water. This is the warning issued by Prof. Johan Woltjer, professor of Regional Planning and Development at the University of Groningen. ‘We have never needed to worry about fresh water before; it’s just always been there. Now it can’t be taken for granted any longer.’

Johan Woltjer
Johan Woltjer

Slowly but surely, the consequences of climate change for our fresh water supply are becoming apparent. Saline seawater is starting to penetrate our soils more and more due to the rising sea level and longer periods of drought. Groundwater is not only getting saltier along the coastline; salinity is increasing further land inwards as well.  If we do nothing then the countryside will change drastically: water dependent habitats will disappear, important crops will fail to grow and entire industries will need to adapt or relocate their activities.

Alarming situation

The situation will become quite alarming,’ says planning expert Johan Woltjer. ‘We have never needed to worry about fresh water before; it’s just always been there. Now it can’t be taken for granted any longer.’ He urges that we need to invest now to prepare for the fresh water scarcity of the future and that we must learn to use the water we have much more efficiently. The professor does see a glimmer of hope, however. ‘The problem is serious, but on an international scale the Netherlands is in a relatively good position. The desiccation is much more serious in central and eastern Europe. If we invest now to safeguard our fresh water supply it will improve our competitive position in the future.’

Salty drinking water?

Many Dutch water companies pump up groundwater to meet the demand for drinking water. This water is so pure that it requires little filtering. However, groundwater levels are now falling and some water companies have already encountered saline water in their wells. These companies are forced to look for new locations to establish groundwater wells. Woltjer: ‘The water companies need to start filtering more surface water and develop water networks so that they can trade in fresh water to get it to where it’s needed. This requires investments, but to date the water companies are hesitant in this respect. Too hesitant, in my opinion. This issue will not come to a head ten years or more in the future. It’s much more urgent than that.’

The Netherlands without tulips?

The agriculture industry will see major changes too, says Woltjer. ‘Alternatives are already being developed, such as crops that can flourish with less water or with more saline water. Fresh water reservoirs will also need to be created to alleviate the worst effects of droughts.’  The professor predicts that smaller businesses will try to relocate when they are faced with water scarcity. Others will need to turn to other activities, meaning that the survival of a typical Dutch agricultural sector will be at stake. Woltjer: ‘The bulb industry that dominates a great part of the Dutch coastline is already suffering from groundwater salinity. This industry cannot easily relocate to another region in the Netherlands, such as Twente. And even if it could, it would be faced with increasing desiccation there too. Of course we could try to maintain the fresh water stocks in the coastal zone, but it would be practically impossible to recuperate the costs of doing this, particularly in the lower lying polders.

No fresh water in the toilet

The business community and consumers will need to play their part as well, says Woltjer. ‘Businesses will need to be more frugal with water and use more water of poorer quality. They could form clusters with their own water networks and then filter and re-use each other’s water. Many industries do not need to use potable water. Nor do consumers need to flush their toilets with fresh water. Sustainable housing developments are already taking this into account. We all need to start thinking differently about water and realize that, before long, the water we have taken for granted will become a scarce commodity.

Curriculum vitae

Johan Woltjer (1968) is professor of Regional Planning and Development at the University of Groningen. He concentrates his research work on institutional innovations for regional planning issues and the role of sustainable development in spatial planning. He studied and graduated in Groningen and worked for TNO (Netherlands Organisation  for Applied Scientific Research) and the universities of Twente (1999-2002) and Amsterdam (2002-2006). He is currently studying the use of fresh water in the Netherlands together with colleagues Piet Pellenbarg and Jannes Willems. He won the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) SPIN award in 2011.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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