What if we put water first?

Weather is becoming more erratic, we experience more periods of drought and downpours. At the same time, the population is increasing. Which means more users of water. Four regional (water) parties are working on a new water system within the Embassy of Water. Technically, a lot is possible, but this has not yet brought about any real change. An insiders’ talk on how to initiate a movement.

Type Update
Published on 9 October 2020
Part of Embassy of Water
What if we put water first?
Part of Embassy of Water
Project '2050: Kies wat je gebruikt’, Wouter Corvers i.s.m provincie Noord-Brabant, Embassy of Water 2019

On a Thursday afternoon, when the rain is falling from the sky, we meet with Anouk van der Poll, Karla Niggebrugge and Cees Kamp. Van der Poll is the initiator of the Embassy of Water. Niggebrugge is policy officer Water at the province of Noord-Brabant, one of the four partners of the Embassy. The other parties are: Water Board De Dommel, Brabant Water and the municipality of Eindhoven. Cees Kamp is a chemical technologist. An important element in his research and design work is the idea that water has a dimension that cannot (yet) be captured within the material world. He therefore interprets the voice of water within the Embassy. More about that later. 

Three years ago Van der Poll took the initiative for the Embassy of Water. The first exhibition during DDW 2018 is still exploratory. Focussing on: what exactly are the problems in the field of water? And what solutions are presenting themselves? Three years later the Embassy has developed into a collaborative platform of governments, experts and designers with the idea: in order to realise real change, we have to do this together. 

Change, transition, words we hear a lot. Why do things need to change? And how exactly? Van der Poll decided to approach this question from three perspectives: from that of the government, the users and water itself.  

Karla Niggebrugge belongs to the government. For the province of Noord-Brabant, her focus is on making the fresh water supply on the sandy soils of Brabant climate-proof. And she is involved in major water challenges such as climate adaptation and water conservation. “I notice that as governments we often approach water solutions technically, we find it difficult to take the non-rational aspect into account. But if you want to set a bigger movement in motion, you have to be able to do that too. It’s not just a matter of who is right, but also: how do we do this together? 

Image by The Embassy of Water

That is where the role of the designer comes into play. Van der Poll asked deep designers Anne van Strien and Bernhard Lenger to help and ask questions. Niggebrugge: “We often have a tendency to think we know best, and to force people to understand how we see the world. Together with the designers we learned to understand the user’s perspective. We explored why someone makes certain choices. And what this person really needs.”

Van der Poll: ‘With the Embassy I try to stay far away from a negative approach. Like: ‘you’re not allowed to use water for your pool or garden in the summer’. Or ‘you’re only allowed to shower for two minutes a day’. It doesn’t work. And so we turned it around: there is water in abundance. But it is all about balance: what you take you have to give back as well. Our sewage system, for example, is built to discharge excess water to the sea. Sometimes that system even floods during heavy rainfall. You can also choose to collect water locally, and give users a role in it. That does require a different approach from the government. That is a transition in itself.” 

But the time is ripe, notes Van der Poll. To think more from nature’s point of view. That is why she asked Cees Kamp, with his many years of experience, to represent the voice of water. Kamp smiles: “Then I intervene when I hear we’re only talking about facts and figures. The question is also: what does water need to be healthy and resilient?”

Van der Poll: “I hope that we can see water as something that we can borrow from the natural cycle, instead of as a utensil. Then perhaps we should stop talking about ‘users’, suggested one of the designers. What if people become care takers of water? Would you then actually flush your toilet with drinking water?” The Embassy of Water is going to investigate this, and much more, in the coming period.

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