Water management is a complex issue. It needs to guarantee a multitude of public values, such as safety in relation to flooding, clean water for drinking and swimming, sufficient water for irrigation, and proper sewage and wastewater treatment. Sometimes these public values are at conflict with each other. How is water allocated in case of drought, for instance? They may also clash with other public values: how much money are we prepared to spend on the quality of our surface water?
Researcher Willemijn Dicke and her colleagues are studying how public values are being safeguarded against this complex background. “In the public debate, it is often suggested that government should keep a close watch on the water sector in order to safeguard public values,” she says, “despite the policy of liberalization. The government should impose strict, top-down regulation, or else public values could be at risk.” In practice, however, regulation isn’t the only answer, as Dicke points out. There will always be trade-offs that have to be made, and the outcome may differ according to the circumstances.
“There is a strict protocol, for instance,” she explains, “that dictates what should happen in case of drought. It allocates water to various sectors in order of priority. But when the situation arises, managers at the operational level often make decisions that are different. They base their decisions only partly on regulation. The other part depends on their own experience and on market mechanisms.”
This is not necessarily bad, argues Dicke. On the contrary: these so-called ‘horizontal mechanisms’ allow for much more flexibility than just the ‘vertical mechanism’ imposed by the government. It prevents strategic behaviour and it often leads to standards that are actually stricter. Dicke: “Take, for instance, the ‘Blue Flag’ system. Blue Flags are awarded to water areas that meet certain standards of water quality, safety, accessibility and service. Blue Flags are assigned by a consumer organization, in this case ANWB. The Blue Flag ensures standards that are higher than those prescribed in the EU’s Water Framework Directive, and that address a wider variety of public values. It is market force that makes this possible.”
Sometimes there is friction between horizontal and vertical mechanisms, but this, as Dicke notes, only improves the situation. “It leads to fruitful discussions that eventually improve decision making at the operational level. Therefore, in our opinion, a combination of the two mechanisms is more fruitful than relying on one mechanism. It provides healthy competition and an opportunity to learn from others."