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Workable water management – experiences on interdisciplinary collaboration

Posted at 28/09/2020 by Monica Lanz

Lawyer Marleen van Rijswick and engineer Matthijs Kok are working together on workable innovations in water management. On this blog, they share the experiences from their interdisciplinary collaboration for a new call of the Netherlands Organization for Scientific research (NWO) that stimulates such approach. This interview was carried out by Sonja Knols-Jacobs and first published on the NWO website.

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Monica Lanz

Utrecht University

“We met during the ‘water governance’ learning table, an initiative of the Water Governance Center in which experts from various disciplines work together on issues related to water management,” says Marleen van Rijswick (on the photo), Professor of European and Dutch Water Law at Utrecht University. “During the meetings, we developed and applied a method to approach a concrete issue in an interdisciplinary manner with due consideration to the input from various disciplines. We are still making grateful use of that approach and experience.”

Matthijs Kok, Professor of Flood Risk at TU Delft. Photo by

Practical question

“My tip: formulate your research question using a question from professional practice. Because that is never monodisciplinary in nature”, says Matthijs Kok, Professor of Flood Risk at TU Delft.

“Equality is the key word here. During crisis periods in particular, one discipline quickly seems to exert more influence than another. Take COVID-19, for example: statements from virologists have a considerable impact on policy, but the balance between risk acceptance and risk limitation deserves a broader assessment. The challenge is also to anticipate major problems from the perspective of an integral analysis of various alternatives in which each discipline has an equal say.”


Over the years, the lawyer and the water engineer have frequently worked together. They are both currently part of the Perspectief programme All-Risk, of which Kok is the programme leader. The key question within this programme is how you can better manage and prevent flooding. Between 2017 and 2021, eighteen researchers consider innovations in water management and how these can be implemented properly with the help of legislation and governance approaches.

Photo of the "Double dike" project on the north Dutch coast. Photo by Waterschap Noorderzijlvest .

Within the All-Risk programme, there is a lot of attention for specific case studies. “In concrete cases, you gain an insight into the interdisciplinary issues and also into the solutions that scarcely seem to exist in an abstract situation”, says Van Rijswick.

“For example, we study a design with two dikes between which there is a small plot of land for saline agriculture. The farmer who will exploit that small plot of land wants the same guarantees for clean water and freshwater as everybody else. That is difficult. The question also arises as to who is the actual manager of those dikes and the intervening plot.”

Complimentary expertise

The researchers make use of each other’s expertise. Van Rijswick: “The engineers ask me about the legal consequences of certain solutions, and I ask them whether certain legal formulations will result in solutions that are workable in practice. In the Netherlands, the legitimacy of water policy is highly respected. Both dike reinforcements and innovations must be realised carefully, with respect for the interests of residents. That careful approach gives rise to a certain way of working. After all, we do not want to see an approach here that is similar to large water projects by the state in China where citizens scarcely receive any compensation if their village becomes submerged because they are supposed to be happy that they can do something for their country”.

Amending legislation

The collaboration yields concrete benefits for society, they say. “For example, we have considered a new bill for water safety standards. We both found that improvements were needed to enhance the clarity and technical feasibility. In the end, we eventually submitted a joint set of remarks about the bill and the legislation was modified. It is fantastic to see how you can strengthen each other’s position in such a trajectory”.

Success factors for interdisciplinary collaboration

When asked about success factors for interdisciplinary collaboration, Van Rijswick and Kok immediately come up with a whole list of points, which are not only useful for research on dike reinforcement projects but for other type of interdisciplinary endeavors.

Visit to the dike reinforcement project Lauwersmeerdijk-Vierhuizergat on the north Dutch coast. Photo by Monica Lanz.

  • “Keep on asking questions and do not be put off by professional jargon or the complexity of issues. Make sure that if you use the same words, you are definitely talking about the same thing.”
  • “Adopt a constructive attitude: am I willing to understand you, and am I prepared to explain my way of working so that you can understand me?”
  • “And perhaps the most important point of all: ensure that you create enough space for the social component. During a coffee break, a lunchtime walk or a visit to a location, you get to know each other better and then it is easier to ask for a further explanation or more background information. And once you know and appreciate each other, then not only will the collaboration be easier, but it will also be far more pleasant, even if you disagree about certain approaches.”

Last modified: 25/11/2020