The role of the water company in area planning processes
Every year, within the water sector’s joint research programme (BTO), research projects are carried out under the Tailored Research heading. In 2013, one of these involves social-scientific research into the role of drinking water companies in the so-called “area planning processes”.
Researcher Chris Büscher explains that an area planning process is “a well-defined process that addresses one or more problems in an area, for which several parties have to arrive at a solution. Take soil contamination for instance; this is a problem that involves the water company, various public entities and sometimes project developers and consultancies as well.”
“In complex area planning processes the parties are mutually dependent. They have to operate with caution.”
“The literature and current policy documents give the impression that a proactive attitude and an integrated approach achieve the best results,” he continues. “You have to get involved early-on in the development to be able to exert optimal influence. In this way you can also collaborate with other parties and keep an eye on their – frequently conflicting – interests.” Whether this is actually what occurs is the question he, together with his colleague Miranda Pieron, is studying in reference to two practical cases, in a commission from Waterleidingmaatschappij Limburg (WML) and Brabant Water.
WML and Brabant Water want to have more insight into how they themselves operate in area planning processes and whether they could do better. KWR is studying two practical cases in which the water companies are involved. Both have to do with soil contamination which might have an impact on drinking water. The researchers are interviewing the management and staff of both companies and, in one case, Limburg provincial officials, and staff members of a consultancy and a project developer. In the other case, they’re talking to officials of the Province of North-Brabant, the municipality of Eindhoven and Waterboard De Dommel. In advance, the researchers describe four ideal-type roles – based on the whether or not the approach is proactive or is integrated – which the water companies can reflect upon.
“You often notice that the problem is not a stand-alone problem. Other factors also play a part; which means that the process becomes a continuous – and lengthy – one,” says Büscher. Eindhoven for instance is situated in a basin, so that the groundwater levels there are high. Brabant Water operates medium-depth water abstraction wells, which contribute to controlling the groundwater level. “Now, imagine if the water company were to leave the area because the soil contamination was beginning to slowly encroach on the water wells. Eindhoven would immediately find itself with wet feet. In complex area planning processes the parties are mutually dependent. They have to operate with caution.”
The companies’ behaviour switches quite a bit between proactivity and reactivity. Sometimes they are very proactive, when their partners actually expect them to be reactive. In terms of the sectoral-integrated approach axis, the area planning processes are forcing water companies to broaden their view and seek out collaborations. The collaboration partners interviewed find that the water companies are usually constructive and professional in reconciling their own interests with those of other parties. They only become inflexible when something would demonstrably have a negative impact on the quality of drinking water production. “Acting in a constantly proactive and integrated manner is not always necessary or desirable. Depending on the situation, companies can opt for a more or less proactive or integrated course,” says Büscher. “The four roles can help water companies make this choice.”
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