Q&A with Dutch Ambassador to Chile: Lessons to be learned from how the Netherlands manages water
Water management has always been present in the history of the Netherlands. A nation that has a lot of experience in modernization in horticulture and that, through its ambassador, Harman Idema, is collaborating to tackle the drought in Chile.
Idema indicates that an important reason for the success that his country has in water management is the "golden triangle". In this model, the public, private and knowledge sectors work together to find the best solutions. Therefore, collaboration on this issue is essential for the ambassador.
In this context, one of the most important projects managed by the embassy of the Netherlands is GIRAgua, a project that precisely involves the various actors to carry out a comprehensive management of water resource.
Idema spoke with PortalFrutícola.com about GIRAgua, the reality of the Netherlands on this issue and how collaboration could be key to face the drought and the effects of climate change in Chile and around the world.
What is the GIRAgua project about?
It is a pilot with comprehensive water management, focused on how we can better capture and store water and use it when needed. Recharging underground aquifers is one of the key goals.
This comprehensive way of managing water is key to solving the challenges faced today. It requires a lot of collaboration between all affected parties. In this model, the public and private sectors and knowledge sector work together to find the best solutions. We are interested in sharing experiences with Chile because it could help to reach structural solutions.
Why did you decide to be part of this initiative and what benefits does it bring to Chile?
With the GIRAgua project we hope to implement solutions that help improve water availability. Together, with everyone involved, we are working on measures to manage water better, more efficiently and more effectively. This project deals with comprehensive water management based on good governance. Dutch knowledge of water is found in precisely these two areas, so this is an ideal project to use our knowledge and experience to contribute towards the solutions to the problems of drought in Chile.
Monitoring and modulation is very important to be able to distribute water to everyone involved at the right time in a fair way. This project and other pilots in other watersheds provide useful data to arrive at a national strategy on the management of all watersheds in Chile.
Due to droughts and the lack of water, farmers in the area have challenges on how to continue their activity. Furthermore, banks, due to lack of water availability, are no longer so willing to provide credit because there is no guarantee of availability of crops. Deeper wells are a very short term solution. It is better to find a structural solution: capture the water when there is a lot of it, store it in underground aquifers (using the same wells to inject the water), use it when needed and recycle it after it has been used.
In combination with new irrigation technologies, many advantages are acquired for the users (and the authorities) of the water: more availability, a more efficient and effective use, recycling and reuse and / or saving again, resulting in a lower consumption and greater availability. This helps farmers directly and indirectly, the rest of society and even authorities.
What is the importance of having efficient irrigation in greenhouses in a context of drought in Chile? What could be the Netherlands’s contribution?
Growing vegetables or fruits in greenhouses has two great benefits that can help Chilean agriculture. First, increasing production and second, lowering the use of irrigation water.
The Netherlands is very knowledgeable in the field of modernization of horticulture. There are several Dutch companies that are dedicated to exporting this horticultural knowledge around the world. They offer solutions for different climates and investment ranges (high-tech and mid-tech).
It starts off with a seed, which is adapted to grow hydroponically, construction of new greenhouses, even computers to improve the greenhouse climate. A combination of these tools is necessary to produce efficiently and adapted to the availability of water in the local climate. Return on investment can be guaranteed through higher returns and better product quality. In addition to this, the producer is less dependent on the weather.
How does good soil management also help mitigate the consequences of climate change? What experience does the Netherlands have in this and how could Chile replicate it?
With good soil management, it can not only adapt to climate change, but the environmental impact can also be mitigated. For these two processes (adaptation, mitigation) a 'living' soil is needed. That is, a soil with a lot of organic material and microorganisms. If a soil has these two characteristics, it can capture Co2 to mitigate climate change and at the same time adapt to extreme climates. With good soil management, more water can be held for longer during extreme rains or droughts.
The Dutch university, Wageningen University & Research, is experimenting with new academic theories at the Farm of the Future which opened this year in the Netherlands. This farm, for example, has green barriers, areas of the field that have permanent vegetation to promote biodiversity in the soil. In addition, they are planting in strips of different crops instead of a monoculture. In this way they want to prevent degraded soil and increase soil productivity in the long term. Academic ideas are tested in practice to prove their profitability for the agricultural sector.
Another way to mitigate the impact on the environment and turn emissions into something useful shows a cross-cutting project in the Rotterdam area. An underground pipeline carries CO2 from the refineries in the port of Rotterdam to these greenhouses. Plants need CO2 to grow, and they convert it into oxygen. The result is less emissions and more production. There are many ways that different sectors share their residual flows to benefit another sector.
One of the options that specialists recommend the most is water recycling. How would it benefit Chile if this practice became more popular?
Reusing domestic and industrial water is one of the options to lower the pressure on fresh water that exists in Chile.
Today there are new technologies to filter water at a low cost that can be used a second (or third) time. It is not only a solution for urban areas, but also works in rural areas where there is a shortage of water and there are conflicts over fresh water between mining, agriculture and drinking water.
Bluecon, a Dutch company, is entering the Chilean market with a compact and modular system for purifying wastewater. For example, it can treat domestic wastewater for up to 5,000 people and make it reusable for irrigation use. In principle, it is to optimize the water cycle for water users at the local level, then these users at the local level in many places in Chile can benefit from this system.
The situation in the Netherlands
What were the main challenges for the Netherlands in water management in the beginning?
Our first challenge is the fact that a third of our territory is below sea level, the deepest point is -6.8 meters. We dry these lands with the use of mills and dikes, winning the battle against the sea. Furthermore, we are a delta where several European rivers (Rijn, Maas etc.) end in the Nordic Sea.
Water management has always been present in the history of our country and we are used to talking about the "battle against water". Now we know that you always lose the battle against water. So now we work (together) with water. Give the water the space it needs and take that into account when setting up the infrastructure. We are building with nature.
Our second challenge is that next to the coast, the water is salty, it cannot be used for irrigation nor as drinking water. The river water has already been used and has a degree of contamination. There is a lot of water available, but it is not always suitable for irrigation in our agricultural sector or for human consumption.
What are the challenges ahead and how are you working to solve them?
In recent years we have had increasing drought problems in the Netherlands. On the one hand, for the reasons mentioned above, the water that reaches the Netherlands is not always usable. Furthermore, climate change and drought are a global trend. Like the situation in Chile, the Netherlands had extremely dry years. In several regions, especially the south and east of the Netherlands, farmers were struggling because of the drought. This has consequences for the quality of our dams, which also dry out and are less resistant to water. Therefore, the drought also affects the quality of our protection against water.
Although the drought was not as extreme as in Chile, we also know that climate change is going to affect us all in the near future. One of the new Dutch solutions for livestock is climate adaptive drainage, a pipe system that adapts to extreme rains and dry times as well. It is an alternative to conventional irrigation and drainage. The multifunctional pipe serves as drainage in times of rain and reverse drainage (irrigation) in dry times. Because of this, the fields have less evaporation and the roots have direct access to water.
What is the structure of water governance in the Netherlands?
Due to the long Dutch history with water management, the governance structure is very different from the Chilean one. Dutch water boards (waterschappen in Dutch) are regional government bodies in charge of managing water barriers, waterways, water levels, water quality and wastewater treatment in their respective regions. These regional water authorities are among the oldest forms of local government in the Netherlands, some of which were founded in the 13th century. These water boards are external to other Dutch administrative structures.
Could Chile imitate the governance of the Netherlands in certain areas and improve this item?
What is important is the comprehensive management of water as a whole, that is, surface and groundwater. If there is anything that could be copied, it would be that. It is not so much copying the Netherlands, because at this point, it is already a good practice worldwide.
Now in Chile this is handled separately, and it is one of the reasons why recharging underground aquifers is difficult. In addition, the water in Chile in most cases belongs to “someone” (a company or person etc.). In the Netherlands it belongs to everyone and nobody at the same time. The “water government” as mentioned above, is responsible for the integral water management and decides what measures must be taken at the time of a problem to continue satisfying all those involved as much as possible or what usage to prioritize based on clear rules.
An example: the wastewater deposited in rivers belong to the farmers, only the wastewater, deposited in the sea, could be reused again by the sanitation services companies. Another example: recharging underground aquifers is complicated in Chile because there are no clear standards of the quality of the water to be injected.
In both examples, Chile could take a look at the Dutch experience. In the Netherlands they recharge underground aquifers of different types, which require different rules and policies. In addition, all wastewater flows back to the same sanitation companies for cleaning, reuse, or storage for the future.
Agricultural Water Summit
The Embassy of the Netherlands will take part of the Agricultural Water Summit, the first event that will comprehensively address the water crisis affecting Chile, and will be held on April 20, 2021, at the Sun Monticello Hotel Conference Center, located in San Francisco de Mostazal.
How important is it for you, as an embassy, to participate in an event like the Agricultural Water Summit?
For our embassy in Chile, water and agriculture are priorities. They are topics where we have knowledge, technologies, and commercial interests. Furthermore, the Netherlands is the world's second largest exporter of agricultural products. There is much to share with Chile, and we can, for example, cooperate with Chile in strengthening its capacity and quality of export of agricultural products to Asia. Of course, good management and efficient use of water is key in this.
The embassy always tries to connect the different actors in the sector. On this principle, we promote cooperation between the public (government), private (companies) and academic (universities) world. That is part of our vision on comprehensive management. Events like the Agricultural Water Summit bring these diverse actors to the table. For this reason, it is important to participate in the event since we are always ready to exchange ideas and experiences.
Why is it important that initiatives like these are carried out today?
It is a crucial moment for Chilean agriculture and initiatives such as these provide a platform to seek joint solutions. Chile has an extreme drought and it is very likely that it will be worse in the next 5 to 10 years.
If we don't take proper action now, it will be too late. Not only Chilean agriculture, but the industry worldwide needs to take measures to be more efficient with fewer natural resources and mitigate its impact on the environment.
The increase in the world population and the growing demand for healthy food, combined with climate change, are a great challenge for the global agricultural sector. The agricultural sector plays an important role in achieving sustainable development goals related to water, hunger and food.
For more information on the Agricultural Water Summit, click here.