Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for the Netherlands


Verzeker toegang en duurzaam beheer van water en sanitatie voor iedereen

Even though in the field of clean water and sanitation the Netherlands outperforms many countries in the world – and for this SDG it is ranked 8th in the world by the United Nations – our country could still be perceived as not being future-proof in this specific field. This article aims to provide a brief overview of the existing hurdles to overcome in the upcoming decades, and to showcase a few of the proposed solutions to these problems. It presents the results of an intensive research by means of in-depth interviews with players in the water sector. But first we will provide a brief overview of how water flows as it flows in the Netherlands, together with the important players in this Dutch water chain.
In this article we subdivide this specific SDG in three different categories: Ecosystem, Production and Consumption. The Ecosystem category encompasses all natural water bodies, such as rivers, lakes, seas, but also swamps, peat bogs, groundwater reservoirs and natural parks with their forests. The Production and Consumption categories are human-centered. Production embodies the extraction and production of (drinking) water that ends up in ‘human’ streams, and is used by households, businesses, industry, agriculture and for energy production. The Production category extracts water from Ecosystems, often groundwater aquifers or rivers. Lastly, Consumption is the category where water from Production ends up in. Here, the quality of water is often deteriorated by introduction of all kinds of pollution. This water is afterwards collected, purified and discharged again in Ecosystems. Key players in the water sector are drinking water companies (Production), water boards (Consumption), Rijkswaterstaat (Ecosystems), municipalities (Consumption), provinces (Ecosystems) and the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment (all categories).


Water ecosystems in the Netherlands have improved significantly throughout the last decades, with higher water quality that led to the successful re-introduction of several species such as the otter. However, we are not there yet. Rivers are still being polluted with all kinds of chemicals that end up in them. Medical pollutants (e.g. antibiotics, chemotherapeutics), hormones, plastic litter and microbeads as well as the relatively new nanoparticles, cannot be effectively retained in sewage treatment facilities and hence end up in natural water bodies. In addition, chemical fertilizers and pesticides are significant polluting agents, not only ending up in groundwater reservoirs, but also via surface discharge in gullies and rivers.
Climate change poses a threat to water bodies as well, where periods of severe water stress (drought and wet periods) potentially bear huge economic costs. Petrification of urban areas is an important contributor to higher peak discharge in extreme weather conditions. Urban drainage systems cannot be designed to cope with appurtenant high peaks of rainwater, resulting in the dilution of the sewage stream and hence rendering the waste-water treatment less effective. Moreover, climate change can lead to potential flooding of economic zones. Periods of drought can lead to potential shutdowns of power plants and reduced crop yields can have negative economic impact. These dry periods will worsen the problem of salinization in specific areas in the Netherlands as well, reducing crop yields in the long term even further.
Furthermore, the water footprint we have as consumers in the Netherlands is above world average. Per citizen we consume approximately 1850 m3 of water per year (estimates range from 1400 to more than 2300 m3 per year), with 63{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} related to food consumption and only 2{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} caused by domestic water use. As a matter of fact only 11{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} of this water footprint is taking place within Dutch borders. This is important to notice, as the realization of SDG 6 in other countries is indirectly related to our consumption patterns. To solve these issues we have to think across borders.


Climate Change – To deal with the changing weather patterns we need to deal more intelligently with our water system. Retention, storage and discharge are essential. Retention and storage are important in dealing with peaks in dry and wet periods. In ecosystems, this can be achieved by enlarging the storing capacity of the catchment area (where rain infiltrates the soil). In urban areas, this can be implemented by green roofs, ‘water squares’ in cities, green areas and ‘urban gardening’, and the local usage of rain water. Discharge of water in ecosystems requires widening of riverbeds, maintaining clean gullies, while in urban areas the use of slopes is needed to reduce the water pressure on the drainage system. This all requires effective collaboration between water boards and municipalities.
Improving water quality – Water quality could be improved by reducing pollution at the source. Medical pollutants from excreta in hospitals could be filtered with Pharmafilters, offering a central collecting system specifically designed for this purpose. Concerning chemical fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture, a transition towards natural pesticides and organic permaculture principles could be encouraged in order to reduce environmental impact and to retain more nutrients in the soil. New types of pollutions such as micro-beads and nanoparticles should be actively regulated, not only by pushing industries to omit harmful nanoparticles and micro-beads in their products, but also to spur on companies to reduce their environmental impact, including Corporate Social Responsibility.
Reduce water footprint –
Awareness should be raised on our water footprint as consumers. This could be obtained through exhibitions, media and education. Governmental push-and-pull measures could be installed for more sustainable water consumption, for instance to encourage tap water over bottled water and install tools to enhance the viability of water-saving measures. The Dutch water footprint could be reduced internally by shifting to more renewable energy (SDG 7). Existing ‘grey’ electricity production has a share of more than two-thirds of the total water extraction and consumption in the Netherlands. Focus should not only be on the internal but also on the external footprint; 50{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} of our water footprint for food consumption is induced by livestock products, meaning that the transition to a plant-based lifestyle could be of significant value. Additionally, a paradigm shift is necessary towards a more sustainable production supply chain, including innovative business models to allow the transit from a consuming society – focusing on buying new products – towards a circular, closed-loop society, focusing on leasing, re-using and sharing (SDG 12). This will not only reduce our internal water footprint, but also – and significantly – the water footprint abroad.
Reuse – Water reuse within households could be accomplished by the upcycling shower concept (e.g. Upfall shower), directing treated wastewater to washing machines, and collecting and separating rainwater from the sewage system so that it could be used for flushing toilets and watering gardens. To implement these innovative concepts, cooperation is called for between municipalities, architects, construction and installation companies.
Recycle – Our wastewater streams offer an invaluable source of nutrients; nutrients that can nowadays only be extracted for a mere 80{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} at the treatment plants. Nitrogen production being a highly energy-intensive process, and phosphate being a limited resource and constituting a key building block for sustaining agriculture and life in general, are now predominantly ‘wasted’ by ending up in sludge or biogas. The other 20{bfb8b4827b15e0df3d636cc4328af00f95317b5e6a44a4c67b5ed085bc570bb6} ends up in our ecosystems, which may cause algae blooms with a negative impact on water biodiversity, due to eutrophication. To achieve a more circular wastewater treatment, the focus should be on full nutrient retention and utilizing these nutrients as high as possible in the value pyramid. An example of this is the production of alginate, a resource for, among others, bio-plastics.

In conclusion, the existing wastewater treatment management is a traditional, linear system based on wasting and nullifying value, often asking the question: what are we willing to pay for good and sustainable water quality in the long term? A consciousness shift is needed towards the awareness of our tight connection with nature and a paradigm shift towards a closed-loop wastewater treatment system, that is based on retention and preservation of water and nutrient resources. To think across generations and borders, we need to protect ecosystems and thereby the quality of our (drinking) water resources, making them climate change- and future-proof.

Wastewater treatment facility Harnaspolder Delft – Source: Wageningen Universiteit
Emil Goosen

Emil Goosen

Entrepreneur & Energy consultant
COO and Product developer AquaBattery
BSc. Soil, Water & Atmosphere (WUR)
MSc. Energy & Environmental Sciences
Goal keeper SDG 7 Merit360, World Merit

Jasmijn van den Berg

Jasmijn van den Berg

Anthropologist (BSc),Premaster student
International Development StudiesAIESEC Ambassador (Tanzania)
Sustainability Designer (EDE)
Goal keeper SDG 12 Merit360, World Merit
Project Coordinator Organic Waste Management, Gemeente Amsterdam

World Merit is a global community of change makers to tackle the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Merit360 is its flagship program and brings together 360 people from all over the world to develop action plans to tackle each of the 17 goals. As part of World Merit’s partnership with the United Nations, these action plans were presented to the United Nations at its headquarters in New York City, with the objective of paving our way to successfully addressing these challenges before or by 2030.