The Dutch Narrative of Water Management

By Maria Giannakopoulou

Sun Tzu famously said that if you want to defeat your enemy, you have to be like water – able to adjust and take every possible shape. But what happens when you have to confront water itself? Climate change and water crisis are much more than just a threatening narrative; It is a fierce reality for a significant part of the global population. Floods, droughts, food crises, limited access to safe water and sanitation are widespread phenomena that challenge climate resilience as much as our life quality.

Be like water. Cat is water. Be like cat.

With the advent of the first  UN Water Conference since 1977, in March 2023 it is interesting to delve into the Dutch cutting-edge expertise when it comes to flood resilience management. The Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Republic of Tajikistan will co-host the UN conference in New York. Beyond any doubt the Dutch are well known for their long history of flood defense and more specifically about what they call as Rijkswaterstaat (= Water management). It thus does not come as a surprise that the Netherlands is a host given their world-class contribution. Even during the pandemic, the Dutch water partnerships were flourishing around the globe in Africa, Asia and Middle East.

Why are the Dutch so trustworthy, or, to say it in better words, what gives the Dutch the green light to promote a more sustainable modus vivendi? Like every nation, the Netherlands has borders to set. However, it takes more action than diplomacy when your rival is the North Sea. According to Dutch Government sources, 70% of the Dutch population lives below sea level. The Netherlands’ commitment to water management is also reflected in its. constitution. With the constitutional backing in mind, it is of high importance to initially refer to the Ministry of Public Transport and Water which was established in 2009 and introduced multilayered safety as a flood policy framework. Specifically, multilayer safety (MLS) combines measures at the three “layers” of flood risk management: flood defense, spatial planning and disaster, and crisis management. Secondly, the Dutch Water Act constitutes the “bible” applied by individuals and businesses for the modernization – upgrading of Dutch water management. The Spatial Planning Act (WRO) is also Inextricably intertwined with the water act.

Instead of keeping their expertise to themselves, the Dutch are extreme extroverts when it comes to sharing this knowledge and creating partnerships. An exemplary initiative is the Blue Deal, the international initiative directed cooperatively by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of Infrastructure and Water Management. The Blue Deal project began in 2018 and will run to the end of 2030. Namely, some of the countries with which the Netherlands cooperates are the following: Argentina, Mali, Burkina Faso,  Kenya, Romania and Palestine.

The main goal of the project is the provision of water supply and amelioration of adverse conditions in 14 countries around the world. In this mission there are benefits both for the Netherlands and their partners as solid knowledge can be acquired in more complex and challenging natural phenomena. 

It seems like the Netherlands have found their way back to gain a predominant role worldwide. This role is widely supported by the Dutch Embassies which have the duty of managing the supervision needed for the evolution of such cooperation programs. This is a clear case of soft power display. According to Joseph Nye, Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power — the ability to coerce — grows out of a country’s military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. Irrefutably, Netherland’s involvement in the resolution of the climate crisis outside its own borders has significantly increased its influence and It is not expected to be a short-term investment.

Despite the fact that this contribution resembles a huge investment, it goes a little bit further to a holistic diplomatic approach where gestures of cultural bonds are not absent. For instance, on the occasion of 50 years  of diplomatic ties and contribution in crucial areas such as agri-business, water management, climate change, RMG-sector, gender and human rights, the Ambassador of Netherlands to Bangladesh, Anne van Leeuwen led the inauguration of  the wall murals on the perimeter of the Dutch Embassy.

The Dutch pivoting in developing countries of Asia and Africa does not come as a surprise when in fact all of the big powers want to capitalise on these regions. In 2022 Dutch state officials participated in long, continuous discussions with their counterparts in countries such as Vietnam, Jordan and India with the aim of reinforcing trade ties and joint action in water management. And in fact , at Asia Water 2022 last December, the Dutch water solutions were well represented throughout the week, with a large delegation headed by the Dutch Water Partnership (NWP) in attendance. Furthermore, the DRR (Disaster Risk Reduction) report on flood mitigation in Malaysia has been successfully submitted to the ministry of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change of Malaysia. Once again, the Embassy of the Netherlands in Malaysia was the host. 

It is also impressive that the Netherlands have partnerships with the high ranking pieces of the international chessboard, including number 2, China. A considerable number of cities in China suffer from water shortage, while Dutch Research and Development in China laid the foundations for this Sino – Dutch cooperation since 2009 under the supervision of Rijkswaterstaat. A long standing water alliance also connects the United Kingdom and the Netherlands due to the severe calamities  that both faced with the catastrophic floods of 1953. Since then the two countries have cooperated on the Thames Barrier and the Deltaworks. The crown of their bilateral relation is the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2015 for action in areas of common interest.

Undoubtedly the Netherlands have remained adamant to their sustainability and strengthening of SDG6 which extend to a  wide geographical interest , encouraging the sustainable management of water sources  sanitation. It should be mentioned that during the pandemic they did not diverge from their sustainable aspirations not only by not interrupting water projects but also by hosting the Climate Adaption Summit in January of 2021. Hence, the Netherlands contribution to global crisis management on a worldwide level is not limited to the political level.  Academic research is equally promoted through internship and  volunteer programs in the most prestigious educational institutions of the country, such as Utrecht University. 

To cut a long story short, enhancing its global strategy of flooding, irrigation, secure  river banks and  water purification lay on the top of the Dutch agenda   and has upgraded the country’s international prestige to a considerable degree. By their missionary omni-presence the Netherlands keep on proving that fighting  against the  environmental crisis is not just about giving polite handshakes but also being innovative and investing internally and externally.


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Alexandros Sainidis

I am an International Relations Analyst and the creator of the blog Pecunia et Bellum. I have studied International, European and Area Studies at the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens, Greece. I am a bilingual Russian speaker and I am currently learning Mandarin in order to gain a deeper understanding of the current International Affairs in Eurasia.

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