Dealing with Drought in Deltas

In the Netherlands droughts have become more manifest over the last couple of years. As a result, several initiatives have been taken to deal with these droughts. In scientific literature however, these Dutch initiatives are not compared with those of other countries. Comparative assessments of drought resilience initiatives seem to be lacking. This is a pity since comparative studies may provide relevant inputs for social learning. The Dealing with Droughts in Deltas project addresses this knowledge gap and aims to take a first step in reducing it. Aim of the project is the development of an assessment framework for conducting comparative research on water scarcity governance in delta areas. The framework is based on a review and synthesis of scientific papers on water scarcity and drought governance.

The framework consists of five governance dimensions and five characteristics which are considered relevant for day-to-day water management. The five governance dimensions refer to the following:

  1. 'Level and scales involved': the level and scale here are not just administrative scales from local to EU, but also hydrological scales: governance assumes a multi-level (multi-actors and institutions) and multi-scale characteristics.
  2. 'Actors and networks involved'': the multi-actor character of the relevant network(s) is considered important.
  3. 'Perceptions of the problem and goal ambitions': the multi-faceted character of the problems and ambitions is considered important.
  4. 'Instruments': the multi-instrumental character of the strategies used by the actors involved is considered important.
  5. 'Responsibilities and resources for implementation': the complex multi-responsibilities’ and resource bases for implementation are considered important.

Each of the five dimensions can be characterized by focusing on its:

  1. 'Inclusiveness': are all elements relevant for the sector or project that is focused on taken into account?
  2. 'Coherence': are the elements in the dimensions of governance reinforcing rather than contradicting each other?
  3. 'Flexibility': are multiple roads to the goals, depending on opportunities and threats as they arise, permitted and supported?
  4. 'Intensity': how strongly do the elements in the dimensions of governance urge changes in the status quo or in current developments?
  5. 'Knowledge input': what (scientific) knowledge is used in decision making?

The framework was tested in an analysis of the way five strategies for dealing with draught were elaborated upon in the Netherlands. These strategies include:   

  1. Prioritization of particular water functions (drinking water, process water, irrigation,  navigation, hydropower, nature, peat dike protection and the prevention of salt water intrusion) over others;
  2. Reduction of fresh water demands by introducing water saving technologies (including water reuse), land use changes, the introduction of more drought resistant or salt tolerant crops and/or by organizing water savings campaigns;
  3. Buffering of freshwater in lakes, canals or floodplains, by managed aquifer recharge, re-meandering of modified brooks, raising ground water tables or by the construction of smaller scale storage facilities in the built environment (rainwater harvesting);
  4. Guaranteeing minimum river flows by concluding agreements with upstream countries (International basin strategies);
  5. Compensation and recovery of residual risks by private or public insurance systems.
    dry corn field with young corn plants
    Dry corn field with young corn plants.

    We have first used the framework in an explorative analysis and assessment of each of the discerned drought strategies. Next, we have focused on the way these strategies are integrated in the South-Western delta of the Netherlands.

    Our testing made clear that both the five strategies and the framework for understanding the way they are embedded in society needs to be adapted. We found that a distinction should be made between long-term and short-term strategies. Long term strategies aim at improving the robustness of water supply. Short term strategies focus on the prioritization of different water uses and the use of alternative sources.

    It may be considered self-evident, but we also found that scale matters. Ideally the strategy mix should be optimized on different levels: the basin level, main river channels and tributaries and the Delta level. Geographical characteristics matter as they define key challenges. Drought issues differ between higher sandy areas, peatlands and tidal areas. Water demands also differ and are highly influenced by land use and population density.

    Apart from this we learned that we need some normative principles or criteria in order to be able to do meaningful comparative research. Meaningful implies that governing agents in one area ideally learn from other areas. This can be done by offering analytical comparisons, but it makes more sense if we introduce some normative criteria. Good governance, effectiveness, legitimacy and resilience may be good candidates for this. The benchmarks we developed could be used as statements in a survey in which stakeholder opinions on drought governance are collected. Such a survey could give a first insight into strengths and weaknesses of drought governance in a particular area.

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