Amsterdam Water Science Symposium brings scientists together
More than 110 researchers both from UvA en VU are working on water-related topics: water quality, water management or lake and marine ecology. As of today, they are collaborating within ‘Amsterdam Water Science’. ‘You can tell that scientists are very glad to have been brought together here’, says Jeroen Aerts, professor of Water Risk Management and one of the initiators of Amsterdam Water Science. ‘We don’t need a new building, and we’ll all continue to carry out the kind of research we’re good at, but now we know what our colleagues are doing, which will allow us to collaborate and use each other’s expertise more effectively.’
Amsterdam Water Science is being financed with a startup capital of €1 million, half to be be raised by VU University, the other half by the UvA. Among other things, the money will be used to appoint three postdoctoral researchers and set up projects to address concrete questions submitted by organisations and local and national authorities.
The UvA’s water scientists specialise mainly in water quality (ecology, environmental science, toxicology), whereas VU University’s scientists focus more on water quantity (flooding, drought, the risks and consequences of water-related disasters).
Water is an issue that needs to be higher on the public agenda and the new institute should be able to help with that. Because if one thing was clear at the Amsterdam Water Science opening conference, it is that the Dutch hardly ever consider water, even though we owe our existence to polders and dykes. We tend to think of it as something the government should take care of. ‘It’s partly our own fault’, admits local water authority board chair Gerhard van den Top. ‘We engineers have a tendency to say, “Never you mind, we’ll take care of that.” So we can’t really blame people for being poorly informed, nor companies and institutions for hardly ever considering such issues. Why should they? We’re doing fine, aren’t we?’
Someone in the audience asks about the recent incident at the VU University Medical Centre. ‘I’m glad you brought that up’, says Van den Top. ‘That’s exactly the sort of thing I was referring to. We’d been discussing the systems VUmc has in its basement with them for years. Their water main was only open for about 15 minutes, but because their equipment was so vulnerable, there was a domino effect that caused all of the systems to fail.’ The water authority chair cites another example: Google’s data centre at Amsterdam Science Park. ‘If that place should ever get flooded, you don’t want all of Europe’s data traffic to come to a standstill. That would be another disaster domino. We’re talking to Google to help them mitigate the risks.’
Too much and too little water are the main causes of environmental disasters and, more indirectly, of all sorts of conflicts between groups of people. ‘Ninety per cent of all disasters are water-related’, explains Henk Ovink. As the ‘water ambassador’ for the Netherlands, his responsibilities include getting parties to talk in the event of conflicts, disasters or threats. ‘In such instances, facts are incredibly important. Gut feelings won’t help you in those types of negotiations. We really need scientists who can provide us with their expertise.’
Though the water-related problems that authorities and organisations face could possibly be solved with scientists’ expertise, the parties don’t always seek each other out. And one conclusion repeatedly drawn today is that policymakers and scientists are often talking at cross purposes. ‘That’s why this conference is so important,’ says Professor Aerts. ‘This afternoon we will be opening a very direct dialogue with the municipal authorities, the water authority and other parties to identify concrete problems that we as scientists can help to address.’
Many water scientists have expressed a desire to have more scope for experiments. University of Amsterdam scientist Petra Visser provided a great example of a small lake in the province of Groningen plagued by a high level of cyanobacteria blooms. They managed to clear the water by applying a very small dose of hydrogen peroxide, to which cyanobacteria are more sensitive than other organisms. But often the plethora of rules and procedures make such experimentation impossible – a complaint raised by several speakers. This is another way in which it could be useful to unite scientists in an institution where they can join forces to defend the importance of scientific experimentation.
In addition to research, Amsterdam Water Science will educate students to become water experts. The two-year Master’s degree programmes at VU University and the UvA (which each enrol some 25 to 30 students per year) will continue to be offered and will step up their collaboration, enabling students to more easily take electives at the ‘sister’ university.
This article is written by Welmoed Visser and published in Dutch on the website of Advalvas.