Drinking Water Sources: Quality Under Pressure

Published on 07/03/2022 Last updated on 23/10/2023

According to several studies, the quality of our drinking water sources is at risk. These sources are becoming increasingly polluted by human activity. “Time is running out”, says Peter van der Velden, Chairman of the Association of Drinking Water Companies.

In 1851, infectious diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera were rampant in the Netherlands. They destroyed cities and cost many lives. The cause? Contaminated drinking water. People did not know it at the time. Drinking water treatment was not a government task. And so city dwellers hoisted water out of the canals for their daily use – without any knowledge of bacteria or hygiene. Everyone shrugged about the fact that canals are also used as sewers. Some of the few drinking water wells were also unhygienic, because sewage seeped in.

On a sunny day, writer and lawyer Jacob van Lennep was working in the garden of his country house ‘Manpad’ in Heemstede. His wife poured him a glass of fresh dune water that she got from the local pump. Van Lennep had an idea: he wanted to supply the clean dune water to Amsterdam. He founded the Amsterdamsche Duinwater-Maatschappij. Since 1853, the company has pumped dune water to the capital. Now, 150 years later, these dunes are still the principal source of drinking water for Amsterdam and the surrounding area, but contaminants are increasingly found here too.

Extraction Areas

The Amsterdamse Waterleidingduinen – now a protected nature reserve – was the first large-scale drinking water source in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, 215 other extraction areas have been added. Around 40 percent of our drinking water is extracted from surface water. The water collection points are mainly located in the western part of the Netherlands. Water companies obtain water from the Rhine, the IJsselmeer and the Meuse, which are fed by rainfall and groundwater from Dutch territory, but also from Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Austria and Italy.

Approximately 55 percent of drinking water comes from groundwater, which is mainly extracted at locations in the east and south of the Netherlands. This groundwater is several years to decades, centuries or even millennia old. In older groundwater, there is less contamination. The rest of the drinking water comes from surface water (40 percent) and riverbanks (5 percent). This is groundwater found right next to rivers. After a short travel time, the infiltrated surface water is pumped up through the subsoil and purified into drinking water.

A Low Score

Recent research by the National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM) shows that more than half of our 216 extraction areas are at risk – either immediate or in the near future – of low water quality and availability. The Institute found that 135 of these sources were contaminated with substances such as pharmaceutical residues, pesticides, industrial waste and drug waste. According to Annemarie Van Wezel, Professor of Environmental Ecology at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands scores poorly in Europe in terms of water quality. “We are the worst boy in the class. Despite the fact we are still a beautiful wetland.”

Van Wezel is referring to the European Water Framework Directive (WFD), a framework designed to protect groundwater, rivers and lakes. The Netherlands has committed to the WFD targets that must be achieved before 2027. To achieve these goals, more effort and money are needed. It remains to be seen whether that will work. According to Van Wezel: “The pollution can be explained by the flow of substances coming from elsewhere via our rivers. Another important explanation for the persistent pollution in the water is the fact that we have a lot of industry and agriculture in a relatively small area in our country.” 

Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management

In 2019, the KWR Watercycle Research Institute studied the quality of Dutch drinking water sources. The study came after the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) stated that the quality of drinking water sources is a cause for concern. The KWR study found that there was a growing number of substances in the water, and higher concentrations of new emerging substances. Peter Van der Velden, chairman of the Association of Water Companies (Vewin), handed the study over to Cora van Nieuwenhuizen, the then Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management. 

“Measures to improve quality are absolutely necessary,” said Van der Velden. “Despite the threats, drinking water in the Netherlands is still of high quality. But that quality is under pressure because more and more toxins are ending up in the water.” Van der Velden argued for better protection of water sources. “The discharge of chemicals, microplastics, pesticides and fertilizers is still tolerated. We close our eyes to the long-term consequences. We’ve been talking about it for years, but it’s only increasing! The question is: how long will we continue to polder on the dossier of polluting substances?”

Negative Trend

The water boards, which are responsible for purifying sewage and monitoring surface water quality, are also noticing a negative trend. “We see that more and more substances are ending up in the water and also many substances that we still know very little about,” says Sander Mager, Director of the Union of Water Boards. “Substances that we may not even be able to detect properly yet. It means that you could then purify them well. Because different substances enter the water, there are also undesired effects to the environment. Those substances can also be extra toxic together.”

Despite the fact that water companies invest a lot of money and effort in purification, low concentrations of health-harming substances are found in our drinking water. Think, for example, of the pesticide glyphosate and carcinogenic substances such as chromium-6 and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). The latter was recently found in the Amsterdam Waterleidingduinen. Many of these substances prove to be more dangerous to health than previously thought. As a result, government agencies are forced to tighten standards time and again. 

Climate Change

According to RIVM, climate change also contributes to the deterioration of water quality. The institute writes that due to the dry, warm summers of 2018 and 2019, the availability and quality of groundwater and surface water have come under pressure. In recent years, less water has been available. Due to the drought, river discharges were lower, resulting in higher concentrations of pollutants in surface waters. As a result, water companies had to make more efforts to produce clean and reliable drinking water.

Meanwhile, there is talk of alternative ways of extracting drinking water. For example using rainwater, wastewater or industrial wastewater treatment plants. Self-sustaining installations, such as the fully autonomous system at the International Space Station, are also possible, as well as purifying seawater, brackish water or polder water. These solutions are still in their infancy and are still more expensive than the current system. But it seems a foregone conclusion that something has to change. “Water will be one of the most urgent issues of the future,” says Van der Velden.


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