Inauguration Martine van der Ploeg: How does climate change impact water management in the Netherlands?

August 28, 2023

Martine van der Ploeg, Professor of Hydrology and Environmental Hydraulics, will deliver her inaugural address on 31 August 2023. In it, she will reflect on the impact of climate change on the water cycle and the consequences this has for water management in the Netherlands. ‘We have to accept that not everything is possible anymore.’

Martine van der Ploeg
Martine van der Ploeg

Wildfires in Greece, record temperatures in the US and China and extremely high ocean temperatures. Martine van der Ploeg is to deliver her inaugural address during a summer in which examples of the effects of climate change made the headlines in many leading daily papers.

Van der Ploeg has headed the Hydrology and Environmental Hydraulics (formerly Hydrology and Quantitative Water Management) group since 1 December 2022. The hydrological consequences of climate change are increasingly central to the group’s focus. ‘We expect a 7% increase in water in the atmosphere in the form of water vapour for each degree in temperature increase. The result is a water cycle “on steroids”, which causes more extreme weather conditions: lengthy dry spells, heavier precipitation in winter and downpours in summer.’

Between water and soil

The fact that climate change intensifies the water cycle is a known fact. Van der Ploeg’s research delves into the question of how this impacts soil, vegetation and carbon storage, as well as the connection between these effects. ‘Consider, for example, the Veluwe, which provides over 30% of the Netherlands with drinking water. This supply will certainly be affected by alterations in factors such as infiltration and river levels. The precise shape and form of the effects, and the severity thereof, are unknown.’

Van der Ploeg studied Soil, Water and Atmosphere in Wageningen, specialising in both hydrology and soil science. Her research often focused on the interaction between physical processes (the flow of water, for example) and biological processes such as soil life. In several projects, for instance, she studied how water in the soil changes due to biological and physical conditions. ‘We often work with computer models, which produce certain physical values. But those values are not constant. They can change due to biological activity and soil structure.’

I like clarifying and solving complex problems

Water-rich Netherlands

As chair of Hydrology and Environmental Hydraulics, Van der Ploeg deals extensively with water management in the Netherlands, a subject that has always fascinated her. ‘We live in a delta, which makes for a super-interesting situation. We don’t want wet feet in the winter, but in the summer, we want to have enough water. Truly a squeeze.’ In a densely populated, flat country like the Netherlands, water retention is a challenge. Van der Ploeg: ‘Simply put: in the lowest parts of the country, the water levels are very high, while water drains rapidly in the few higher zones. In a flat region, the opportunities to store water are limited.’

In her inaugural address, Van der Ploeg will emphasise that the “water-rich Netherlands must accept that not everything is possible anymore. ‘We have always had a surplus of water here, and Dutch society must start to learn that is no longer so self-evident. Consumers must also be made aware of this new reality. Drinking water consumption keeps rising, and this will increasingly cause issues in the summers.’ Although the puzzle is a tricky one, Van der Ploeg remains positive. ‘I like clarifying and solving complex problems.’