Charlotte Offringa MSc

PhD Candidate
Environmental Governance

PhD Candidate - Improving water quality governance in the Netherlands

General project description

With the project "WFD: governance-legal building blocks for increasing goal attainment" STOWA, Utrecht University and RIVM are joining forces on the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which requires the Netherlands to meet its goals by 2027. Central to this is the question of which obstacles are impeding this objective and which practical solutions are bringing it closer to being achieved.

Tis project builds upon previous research and is funded by STOWA

PhD Candidate
Individual project description

Aquatic ecosystems are one of the most degraded habitats. In Europe only 40% of surface waters are of sufficient quality for the whole ecosystem to thrive, threatening biodiversity and human health. The  European commission has tried to tackle this issue with their most comprehensive water policy instrument yet: the Water Framework Directive (WFD). This legislation aims to connect earlier sectoral regulations within this one framework in order to restore all EU aquatic ecosystems by 2027. However, since the adoption in 2000, the WFD has not delivered its main environmental objectives. Ecological water quality is moderate to poor almost everywhere in the Netherlands (and abroad) and in 90 percent of water bodies, chemical water quality is insufficient because one or more substances exceed the standard.  Many barriers stand in the way of the transition to an holistic and effective water quality governance. One such barrier is for instance that collaboration from policy sectors outside the water domain, such as agriculture, is mainly voluntary. This seriously impedes the implementation of effective water quality measures such as reduced fertilization or pesticide utilization near ditches.

Research on the WFD implementation in the Netherlands suggests that several barriers are longstanding, and that there is a tendency to stick to standard governance practices that in the end are not so effective. Think for instance of pilot projects for water quality improvement, that are not only voluntary but also limited in scope. In my research I aim for a better understanding of these practices and I aim to identify what patterns in water quality governance exist, what their underlying mechanisms such as existing  power relations between stakeholders are and what factors can modify these patterns

I define patterns as the repetition of  similar processes in time or in space. Patterns are not by definition “good” or “bad”, but they are (or were) functional for achieving particular goals (such as support and legitimacy) in a specific time and context. Existing patterns could sustain barriers and opportunities for more effective cross-sectoral and multi-level water governance. A more systemic understanding of barriers and opportunities can help both scholars and practitioners to gain more understanding of (dys)functional governance and trigger reflections on current practices in water quality governance.  

The main question of my research is: what factors account for the emergence and change of dysfunctional patterns in the Dutch implementation (cycles) of the WFD?

I will look for four types of patterns in empirical case studies on the implementation of the WFD of the Netherlands. Drawing from insights from various scientific disciplines  an analytical distinction can be made between; 

  1. Discursive patterns: a repetition of what is being said, the language used and the actors between whom discussions take place. Think for instance of discussions on whether standard setting in the WFD is an effort or result obligation.
  2. Behavioral patterns: a repetition of what is being done (or supposed to be done) and who do(es) it. Think of for instance on how ecological experts assess the feasibility of ambitions to improve ecological quality of a water body. 
  3. Institutional patterns: a repetition in the formal and informal “rules of how the game is played” ; these rules structure political, economic and social interactions. Think for instance of the reporting formats or the voluntary nature of cross-sectoral water quality action.
  4. Infrastructural patterns: a repetition in the use of hard infrastructure (e.g. in water treatment systems design), the use of the existing monitoring  infrastructure (e.g. data availability over time), or the financial infrastructure (e.g. use of taxes or public or private loans). 

These four patterns will be mutually related and may partly overlap. The patterns may differ between different water quality challenges. I will therefore do several case studies (i.e., in time and space demarcated governance practices dealing with particular water quality issues or challenges) that focus on one or multiple of the following leverage points for water quality improvement:

  • Hydromorphology (nature friendly river banks, re-meandering, fish ladders) .
  • Nutrient emissions from agriculture (diffuse sources of water pollution).
  • Licensing and enforcement for industry (point sources of pollution ).
  • Water quality monitoring and follow-up systems.

Figure 1 visualizes the overall project. The water system is primarily subdivided in surface aquatic ecosystems and groundwater resources, as the WFD has different objectives for them. The aquatic ecosystems are further subdivided in 5 leverage points for water quality improvement, which can be the objective(s) of the policy implementation measures. The water system feeds back into the monitoring and evaluation phase of the policy cycle. I will look for patterns in the policy cycle with the “ magnifying lens” and analyze the underlying mechanisms for emergence, stability and change.