Interview with Jelle Hannema

Jelle Hannema has been working at the drinking water company Vitens since 2014 and has been the CEO since 2017. Before that, he worked at DHV (now Royal Haskoning DHV) on environmental and area development issues. At Vitens, he found an organization with a clear goal at the intersection of the public and private sectors. Clean and safe drinking water for everyone. It is precisely this clear social purpose that motivates him to help the organization move forward every day. We spoke to him about the history of public water supply in the Netherlands, the challenges his organization faces to keep the water supply on track in the coming years and the high level of involvement of his employees at home and abroad.

The revolution of public drinking water

Reliable drinking water has been self-evident in the Netherlands for more than a hundred years. But to understand how we got there, it is good to look back at the situation before 1900, when the water supply in the Netherlands was unregulated and poor.

The first drinking water facilities arose from private initiatives. Vitens’ oldest initiative was in the Soestduinen, where an iron manufacturer saw a business opportunity in making cast iron pipes for water transport to the city of Utrecht. The drinking water company as we know it today was established in 2006 and is the sum of various initiatives from the provinces of Flevoland, Friesland, Gelderland, Utrecht, Overijssel and Drenthe.

The importance of healthy public drinking water is still deeply rooted in Vitens’ genetic material. For Hannema, the state of public health and thus the quality of drinking water is always leading for choices within Vitens. The quality is even more important than the quantity: “I would rather have a breakdown in the availability of water than supply water that turns out to be unhealthy and that makes our customers sick.”

The quality of drinking water, just like the management of drinking water companies, is critically safeguarded. In the 1960s, a structure was devised in which public parties are shareholders of regional NVs. Later on, it was also realized that scaling up helps. “When you have a contiguous large area, you can achieve economies of scale within transport and pipelines.”

Taking as an example the energy sector, there was a lobby to privatize the water sector as well. “Fortunately, Minister Jan Pronk stopped that,” says Hannema, “Reliable water is too important to be privatized and the current structure can guarantee this just as well. Moreover, from a quality assurance point of view, it is very important to keep production and delivery in one hand, and not to split them up as happens with energy. ” Because Vitens sits between the private and public sectors, it can also effectively respond to the extraction of water. “The extraction of groundwater, which we mainly do, is much smaller-scale and more decentralized than that of surface water.”

Total water availability is under pressure

There is an idea that the agricultural sector uses large-scale drinking water. Hannema disproves this: “Farmers mainly use water from ditches or streams, good quality water is only needed for the animals in the stable and for cleaning installations.”

Still, there are many warnings regarding drinking water availability. The abstraction of water by the agricultural sector is at the expense of the total amount of water available. This is one of the biggest challenges for Hannema. “We want to do our work in harmony with the environment, and therefore not compete with agriculture or nature. There is a joint responsibility for reducing the pressure on water availability. ” But Vitens also fulfills a social and legal task to supply water and the organization does not want to compromise on quality.

“Drinking water is from and for everyone.” It is now important to keep the water system climate proof and make it robust. The many interests make it so important for Vitens to continue to innovate and to constantly seek out common ground.

In the short term, more water resources are really needed to take the pressure off water availability. “However, the increasingly hot summers do not make that easy.” But Hannema also faces an issue in the long term. How do we move towards a fundamentally different design of the water system?

Vitens wants to collaborate with other parties to redesign the water system and make it more sustainable. To this end, Hannema is in regular dialogue with new locations, the provinces, agriculture and the water boards. Rearranging functions seems to be a solution for all stakeholders.

The concept of ‘eternal source’ requires major changes. “For example, less coniferous wood and more deciduous wood in nature can offer a solution for more extraction capacity. Or can new crops be designed that are already provided with sufficient water with micro irrigation.” But this is a complex puzzle that requires fundamental spatial choices to be made, explains the CEO.

Although Hannema is proud to be able to sit in this chair, it is not always without a headache. “It is incredibly complicated because you affect all kinds of interests.”

High involvement in and outside the Netherlands

Vitens is also committed to clean drinking water outside the Netherlands through shareholding in VEI. They do these projects with two main goals.

First of all, they are convinced that everyone in the world has the right to clean and safe drinking water. “The Netherlands is lonely at the top of drinking water quality, which shows that we have the knowledge and expertise to improve the operational management of water companies abroad.” Because the Netherlands is a leader when it comes to drinking water, Hannema believes it has a significant task abroad. Vitens helps drinking water companies with advice as well as practical efforts outside the Netherlands by, for example, learning how to prevent leakage or improve billing.

In addition, the activity outside the Netherlands fits in with the organisation’s HR strategy of being an attractive employer. The employees can spread their wings and work on competencies and skills in a completely different context. “For millennials in particular, the opportunity to work abroad is a reason to join Vitens.”

And this strategy works. Like many other utility companies, Vitens sees long-term employment for its employees. “Our employees are incredibly committed to the cause.” Hannema indicates that there is something controllable in the culture within the organization: “After all, you don’t want to take any risks with the availability and quality of water.”

The new strategy, Elke Druppel Duurzaam, has also been well received within the organisation. “The strategy really belongs to Marike, co-director, and me. People feel that there is personal energy in it and that makes them feel all the more involved.” Water use has become a strategic theme, it is no longer just about supplying but also about using it responsibly. “That is precisely why I am so happy that our people are behind us and that we can start that conversation together.”

A dialogue on social responsibility

Hannema likes to talk to other organizations about how they continuously seek the connection with social responsibility. How do you switch between your circle of influence and your circle of involvement? And, how are you going to talk to customers about making their behavior more sustainable? “Because our customers may be forced customers, but we want to satisfy them.”

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