The Polder Model for Balanced Water Management: A Dutch Approach

Interview with Marcelle Buitendam, director for Public Interest at the Federation of Dutch Labour Unions

8 Apr 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Interview with Marcelle Buitendam

Tobias Schmitz: From the side of The Water Diplomat, we would be very interested in getting a perspective from you on current affairs in international water diplomacy from the perspective of those who are actually ‘producing’ water: on the one hand human rights and international justice but also the nuts and bolts of workplace relations and making water ‘work’. I would like to know more about your current activities at this conference, and I would like to ask you if we can have a look into the Dutch ‘water kitchen’ to understand the unique approach to water management in the Netherlands.

Marcelle Buitendam: Labour Unions are known from television and often associated with strikes. And believe me, we do have experience in these things. However, more importantly, there are quite simply a number of things that need to be done well to make a better world. In addition to economic and legal knowledge, the trade unions also have a great deal of in-house expertise for this. FNV has become a strong business partner for Ministries and Drinking Water Companies and together we come up with solutions.

In the Netherlands we have what is called the ‘polder model’. There is no such word in the English language, and that says everything, because the model that we have is absolutely unique. It is beautiful to see how we as labour union sit at the table (via the foundation for vocational training for enterprises), and contribute to the organisation and the vocational training for future water professionals, and in doing so, serve the whole water value chain, starting with the initial training, and then we have the career trajectory as it is known in the Netherlands with its inflow, throughflow and outflow. This is the foundation, and it requires cooperation, commitment, and trust: it is important to invest in good working relations.

We also have Dutch Water Law, and we must emphasise that water has not been privatised. This, is of course, our golden egg: to show the rest of the world how we have organised our water into supply areas which are not in competition with each other.  We are not in the nonsensical situation where we compete for skills, or if the Netherlands were to become indebted, that water sources would be up for sale to generate short term revenue.  This role of labour unions as a partner in water management is sensitive: in many countries, labour unions are even prohibited. However, for a water process to really ‘flow’, it is very important to invest in cooperation, because each of us, from our own perspective and role, need to help each other. Now we need to note that the energy production and delivery market in the Netherlands has been privatised, so we do need protection and guarantees from government before we present this model internationally.

Last year, in Geneva at the social summit, we had already applied for our accreditation for the UN Conference and this was being processed. To our surprise we noticed that many of the participant countries were in fact not supportive of public supply models but fully supported privatisation. At that stage we asked ourselves whether we were getting involved at the right time. Therefore, it was with great surprise and pleasure that we noted that key themes of the UN Conference included ‘global public goods / the future is public’ and ‘leave no-one behind’. The Dutch Government has also given the signal that the best way to manage water is in fact public. The Netherlands has 19 water companies – including Aqualabs – with 6300 staff members and a very high level of organisation, where ‘decent work’ is a strong principle, implemented at high quality level. This is something to be proud of: this has been achieved with an inclusive approach, that involves the labour unions in a constructive way. Our symbol for this approach is the spirit level, which we offer as a gift when we start a conversation with partners about what constitutes ‘balance’ in water management. It represents a balance in the market, the drinking water sector as a whole should be in balance. If we are faced with polluted groundwater and we need to invest resources in water treatment, the system is not balanced. Where people collecting payments for water services are under threat of being attacked. In labour relations, per supply area, there need to be decent working conditions for everyone working to supply water. Therefore, we are always striving for balance: a balance in the relationship between the inflow of junior staff and the outflow of older staff members, innovation versus continuity: all of this requires a measure of wisdom and striving for balance.

Tobias Schmitz: As you describe this approach, I am strongly reminded of  Integrated Water Resources Management, which is also based on an integrated perspective that seeks a consensual approach across different points of view, different professional disciplines, and different sets of outcomes within a single planning framework  for water.

Marcelle Buitendam: Yes indeed, and unfortunately, we do see that many countries and experts do not want to include labour unions. We, on the other hand, have done our training and our studies and sit at the table as a business partners and experts, and we are very proud of this.  

Tobias Schmitz: Very interesting, and to what extent have you been able to carry through this message and communicate this approach in New York?

Marcelle Buitendam: We went live twice a day at 12:00 and 15:00 New York time, following all our meetings and discussions during side events and network meetings. Many organisations were very surprised to come across a labour union here at the UN conference. Our message on human rights has been communicated with the right tone of voice, and this has been received and appreciated as such. Of course, we were not at the forefront or in the international limelight of the ‘Dutch approach’ here in New York. We are here to make commitments around the Dutch model, to keep water in public hands, to show the strength of a balanced approach. Once those commitments are made, it is the turn of the water workers to make sure that these commitments – as well as the respect for the whole water cycle - become reality.

Tobias Schmitz: May I ask you: you have mentioned human rights: in order to implement the right to water, one needs to look at the people who are working on a day-to-day basis to ensure that this right is realised. How do you see the circumstances which able the men and women to work on the realisation of human rights?  

Marcelle Buitendam:  Well, we are here with representatives from several organisations likeVitens, and Water Midden Drenthe. We have a programme of international exchanges to train people on other countries to enable and empower them to develop water sources, to monitor water quality, etc. Of course, this service needs to be paid for, and there is a delicate process of building consumer trust to pay for the services, and ensuring that those who are collecting revenue are protected and that the money is used appropriately for the purposes for which it was intended.

Another aspect that we work on is that all of the international work that we do collectively as water operators is coordinated under the flag of Vitens Evides International. Within this framework, we have an open dialogue with all our members who wish to contribute to international cooperation, and we respond to all of these requests. Our union always need to be open to practical tips and to innovation: there is a 24/7 dedicated helpdesk to respond to everyone working in international cooperation and provide support and backup to their efforts in the field. The country is in motion, water is in motion, workers are in motion, so we have to maintain an approach which is open to continuous learning. This is the essence of our call to action, water flows through our veins, and we approach both our national and our international work on water within a whole of society approach, in the public interest, based on safe and healthy water work and collective labour agreements for a (water) secure future.