News / 22 January 2024

Is the Netherlands’ reputation as a world leader in the field of water knowledge deserved?

The Netherlands is a major player in the global water sector, but our investments can quite often lead to human rights violations and environmental problems in the countries where they are made. What can a new Dutch government do to reduce the Netherlands’ footprint beyond our borders? Ellen Mangnus spoke to various experts about this issue: today, part 3.

This time, an interview with Simon Richter and Murtah Shannon. Richter is Professor of Germanic Languages and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, but is better known in the Netherlands as Professor Poldergeist, a cartoon figure who shows in short film clips why countries and cities lying below sea level should be concerned about their future. Shannon is senior policy advisor on sustainable and inclusive water management at Both ENDS.

Is the Netherlands’ reputation as a world leader in the field of water knowledge deserved?

Murtah: This is primarily a narrative that the Netherlands itself projects to raise the international profile of Dutch companies that do ‘something’ with water. It is part of an export strategy backed up by considerable diplomatic, institutional and financial resources.

Richter: “The Netherlands want people around the world to think of the Netherlands if they encounter water-related problems: ‘The Dutch know everything about water, we need the Netherlands, let’s ask them for help.’ They often refer to the historical fight against the water, which they have won by working together. As if the Dutch all agree about everything, which is far from the truth.

With his cartoon figure Professor Poldergeist, Richter tries to get the Dutch to take a good look at themselves.

Shannon: Dutch companies have a lot of technical know-how that can be useful elsewhere, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into sustainable water governance. Sustainability is mainly a question of to what end technical expertise is being used, and who gets to decide. These matters tends to receives less attention, resulting in projects that benefit local elites at the expense of water users like farmers and fisherfolk. In the most extreme cases, Dutch companies have become involved in serious human rights violations and biodiversity loss, as is currently happening in the Bay of Manila for the construction of a new airport - with the unwitting support of Dutch tax-payers. That’s why Both ENDS is fighting, together with its partners, for an inclusive water sector. ’

What does that mean and how can we do things better?

Richter: “It is important that European Dutch citizens become more aware that the Netherlands is also vulnerable. The islands of Bonaire, Aruba, Curaçao and Saba are threatenedbyclimate change. And in the long run, the European Netherlands will also be under serious threat. At present, the Netherlands sees climate adaptation as a business case, a problem mainly affecting other countries.

A lot depends on how quickly the sea level rises – for the Netherlands as a whole, including the Caribbean parts of the kingdom, but also for other countries where the Netherlands wants to be a leader in climate adaptation. If this awareness really takes hold, you would expect the Netherlands to be a champion of rapid decarbonization.”

At COP 28 in Dubai, Richter organized a panel on the dangers and opportunities posed by sand for climate adaptation, the subject of the most recent Poldergeist video. The panel members came from Manila, Khulna and Aruba, all places where Dutch dredging operations are seen as disruptive and destructive for ecosystems and the coastal population. "While the Netherlands is exploring ways to harvest sand from the North Sea without causing too much ecological harm. Shouldn’t it apply the same standards to its activities abroad?"

Shannon: “First of all, the Netherlands should be a lot more selective in terms of who it supports. Companies that contribute to human rights violations or the destruction of ecosystems should not be eligible for export credit insurance, participation in trade missions or other benefits made possible with public money. Secondly, support in the water sector should focus much more on facilitating equal cooperation and knowledge development with partner countries, with special attention to the expertise and institutions of local water users. Cooperation is still too often seen as unilateral transfer of Dutch knowledge to other countries, as if the Netherlands has nothing more to learn. That is simply not true.”

What message do you have for the new government?

Shannon: “The Netherlands should much more actively take on the role of innovator in the field of sustainable and inclusive water management. There is an enormous demand for that worldwide.” 

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