Waterbeheer tussen crisis en vernieuwing : een studie naar vernieuwingsprocessen in de sturing van regionaal waterbeheer

E. van Slobbe

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    Research relevance and objective

    The historic development of Dutch water management can be described through the analysis of paradigms governing the management of waters. The period of reclamation of huge peat and clay area's in Western Holland in the 10 thto the 12 thcentury could, from this perspective, be called 'fight against water in order to win agricultural land'. This paradigm changed under the influence of institutional development and changing physical conditions in 'the government fights against water in order to reclaim agricultural lands and to protect society against floods'. In the second half of the 20 thcentury a new problem was emerged: good and clean water became a scarce commodity. Heavy pollution and irrigation demands from agriculture changed the natural abundance of water in the Netherlands into a commodity of which the distribution must be regulated and managed. The paradigm changed into: 'the government must distribute scarce clean water on a rational basis across societal interests'. This paradigm governed Dutch water management during the last decades. Laws were adapted, policy instruments were developed and concepts such as like 'integrated water management' and 'the water system approach' provided the basis for understanding the process of rational water distribution.

    In the years 1993 and 1995, the Netherlands suffered heavy floods and in 1998 excessive rainfall caused huge damages. These water hazard situations generated a discussion about water management in the country. During the century long 'fight' against water but also due to an intensification of land use in Holland the total area of waterways, lakes and rivers has been reduced strongly. The result is a water system designed with minimal dimensions and without the resilience to cope with unexpected climatic situations. During the discussions, a new paradigm emerged which was named 'water accommodation'. The essence of 'water accommodation' is that human society and the physical water environment are interdependent. The design and the dimensions of human made water systems must take into consideration the unpredictable behaviour of a natural phenomenon such as the hydrological system. The operationalisation of this new paradigm asks for renewal of existing knowledge systems.

    My research objective is: describe and analyse- with concepts of systems theory the processes of change in Dutch water management, that have occurred in recentyears. Formulate recommendations to improve the process.

    Boundary conditions

    In order to narrow the scope of this objective some boundary conditions have been formulated. The first one is that regional water management in the Netherlands is considered as the sole responsibility of provinces and water boards. Secondly, I focus the research on changes in the knowledge system supporting operational water management. Thirdly, I use the important distinction between rational action and value based action. Rational action is basically a science-based approach. Value based action emerges from the exploration of values.


    The objective of this research is to contribute with recommendations to the solution of a perceived problem. It uses theory to understand or diagnose the problem and to formulate a possible solution. This type of research differs from what would be called 'fundamental' or 'academic' research, which has, as its main objective, to make a contribution to a body of theory. In a practice- oriented research, theory is used as the 'glasses' through which the empirical situation is perceived and analysed. My conceptual framework is being used in that sense. Wanting to focus on value and experience- based action, there is little point to take an outside and objective stance to the empirical object of study. I used an action- oriented learning systems approach. This approach takes the experience of the researcher within the system of study as the basis for description of the empirical situation. As a consultant I operate in policy formulation and planning processes in regional water management and I use my experiences as cases in this research. Using the cases, the study of literature and the conceptual framework, the change processes are analysed and recommendations are formulated.

    The conceptual framework

    A model of Dutch water management is constructed using the theory of common pool resources. This model describes water management as an interface between physical water systems and society. This interface has the characteristics of a loosely coupled network and is approached as an open social system. Hurst (1995) describes the dynamics of open social systems as an alternation between performance and learning. Ideally, performing and learning should go together,, but due to the slow feed back processes in open social systems and for psychological reasons they are not. The performance cycle equals the life cycle. This life cycle is well known in the analysis of population dynamics in ecological sciences. In open social systems the life cycle starts with an idea. This idea is developed first by informally operating pioneers. The organisation around the idea becomes more and more institutionalised, up till the moment the organisation is highly hierarchical and occupied fully in surviving in a competitive environment. In this phase the capacity of the social system to change or to learn is nihil. A small impulse from the environment is enough to throw the system into a crisis.

    After the crisis the learning cycle starts. Learning starts with discussions about values. Around these discussions people attracted to the subject appear, forming networks in the process . These networks are the best condition for renewal and transformational learning. Out of these networks new ideas are borne and pioneers can start to develop these new ideas.

    Figure 1: Organisational ecocycle, from Hurst (1995).

    (Mintzberg et al. (1998) position the ecocycle model in what they calls the 'configuration school'. This is a perspective on organisational strategy formation based on the idea that organisations fix themselves into rather stable patterns or configurations. Change is defined as a jump or a transformation from one pattern to the other. Using the frameworks presented above, we can distinguish two types of change processes:

    The process that occurs as actors begin to develop a 'group story', and to configure a coherent pattern of values, norms, concepts and practices. The collective institutionalises itself and claims a place within larger institutional and normative systems that, in turn, begin to influence the internal 'story' of the group. The life cycle phase is dominated by processes of finding 'internal' coherence , but in the process the structural relations with the environment are weakened. A crisis occurs when correspondence (the process of managing relations between system and environment) is becomes too weak;Tthe transformational process, that occurs after the deconstruction of normative systems in crisis, and that redefines values and ideas as a basis for new actions and normative systems in loosely coupled networks. In the renewal phase, focus on the correspondence processes dominates and this leads to a situation in which a new life cycle emerges and starts afresh.

    Research questions

    Based on the research objective and the conceptual framework, five research questions were formulated:

    With the help of the conceptual framework, how can the recent developments in the management of regional waters be explained?Can one speak of a crisis in regional water management?If so, what is the nature of the actual crisis in regional water management? And what distinguishes this crisis from other difficult periods or changes?What direction does the actual renewal process take?Which obstacles confront the renewal process?Under which conditions and circumstances can fundamental renewal of regional regional water develop?

    Collection of data

    After the water problems in the nineties of the last century, many studies were published on water management. As a consultant, I was involved in some of them, either as a main author or in a less central role. Of course, I used a great deal of other secondary literature, but the cases are all based on work in which I was more or less directly involved myself. This dissertation draws on first-hand field experience. The first case is a search conference called 'Land for Water'. This search conference was held in order to advise a National Commission on water strategies for the 21 stcentury. The search conference gathered 30 specialists, managers and governors during two and a half days in order to discuss values of actual management practices, a vision for the future, and action programs to change management practices. This search conference is presented as a case because it is an illustration of a sequence of crisis and renewal in an open social system in itself. And the subject of the conference is the same as the subject of this research.

    The second case is about a new planning instrument called GGOR (desirable ground and surface water regimes). This instrument uses a rational method in order to define optimal ground and surface water levels in relation to land use.

    The third case is a regional design workshop in the Province of Overijssel. Thirty farmers and a water board joined forces to design a modern system of canals and structures. The discussions were analyszed to optimise the design while taking into consideration the differences of interest between the stakeholders.

    The fourth case is the creation of an 'action-learning' platform of stakeholders into the Overijsselse Vecht. The river Vecht is a lowland river with its source in Germany. After 200 km the water is discharged in the "Zwarte Water" near the town of Zwolle in the Netherlands. There is a general ambition to improve the state of the river. This ambition increased after heavy rainfall and inundations in the catchments area in 1998. This case is part of SLIM (Social Learning in Integrated Management of river basins), a European Union- funded international research program.


    After analysing both literature and the cases, the following diagnosis was formulated: The paradigm 'water is scarce' is still governing the management system of regional waters. But the internal coherence within the cognitive system is weakening. New practices of management are being used. One example of these new practices is integrated regional development. This is a practice to improve environmental and land use in Dutch regions. The role of water management in these 'network like' planning processes is increasing. Another example of a new practice is a policy formulation process called 'new water policy'. The objective of this process is to analyse the needs for land in order to make the water systems more resilient and capable of coping with unexpected rainfall or river discharges from neighbouring countries. The intention of the 'new water policy' is to renew management practice, but this research shows there is a real risk that this process will fail to reach its objective.

    Some developments in the environment of the management system suggest that a re-definition of correspondence is needed. Examples of these external developments are:

    Climate change, sea level rise and ground level subsidence in the Netherlands;Discussions about the position of government within society and changing relations between provinces and water boards;Difficulties to cope with regional complex environmental problems like: diffuse pollution, structural lowering of groundwater tables, and the decrease of bio-diversity in water dependent ecosystems.

    Three renewal principles

    The search conference 'Land for Water' formulated principles for renewal of water management. Three of these principles resonate with the literature and case studies. These are river basin approach, iterative management and dialogue.

    The river basin approach is defined as a 'learning by doing' approach. The approach is based on the execution of projects. For an innovative impact, these projects must operate some distance from main stream management and governance. They must iterate between strategy formulation to reach a desired state of the river basin as a whole, and the actual results of the projects. Iterative management could be compared with a co-evolutionary approach. A complex system is divided into 'patches'. Problem solving processes are developed in these patches. Through interaction with other patches experience between patches is exchanged. Patching (Kauffman 1995) is an efficient strategy to find adaptive solutions for complex problems. Röling and Woodhill (2001) define dialogue as: "A dialogue is a contrived situation in which a set of more or less interdependent stakeholders in some resource are identified, and invited to meet and interact in a forum for conflict resolution, negotiation, social learning and collective decision making towards concerted action. A dialogue is facilitated. A dialogue always must be perceived within a context that is determined by institutions and policies that shape the outcomes that can emerge from the dialogue" (p. 6).

    These three principles are tested in the case of the Overijsselse Vecht. The conclusion is that all principles are recognised in experimental projects on a smaller scale. On larger scales, institutional questions such as the organiszation of responsibilities dominate the management agendas.

    Conclusions and recommendations

    Efforts to renew of practice of regional water management are well underway in the Netherlands. This research shows that many of these efforts have the characteristics of the old paradigm of 'water is scarce'. Therefore the risk is high that fundamental renewal will fails. At the same time, the need for fundamental renewal is existent especially in terms of the relation of the management system with its environment. In other words, the correspondence in the cognitive system is weak and needs reinforcement. The major obstacle for renewal is the lack of value- based action. The discussion about renewal currently is dominated by the search for new instruments and based in old values.

    Three principles for fundamental renewal that have succeeded in becoming anchor points in current water management practices are river basin approach, iterative management and dialogue. By developing these principles through experiments, the renewal process could gain momentum.

    The main recommendation is to facilitate value- based discussion and action. This needs a conscious effort. This could be operationalised by creating informal environments in which learning is practised, for instance through the organisation of learning platforms or by organising more search conferences.

    Original languageDutch
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Wageningen University
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    • Boekstra, G., Promotor, External person
    Award date23 Sep 2002
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058086754
    Publication statusPublished - 2002


    • water management
    • innovations
    • water policy
    • regional policy
    • decision making
    • systems approach
    • netherlands
    • polder boards

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