Main authors: Frode Sundnes, Cors van den Brink, Morten Graversgaard
Case study leaders: Koos Verloop, Cors van den Brink
iSQAPERiS editor: Jane Brandt
Source document: »Sundnes, F et al. (2020) Advancing MAPs as vehicles for resolving issues on drinking water pollution from agriculture. FAIRWAY Project Deliverable 2.5R, 56 pp


In »Multi-actor platforms as vehicles for resolving drinking water pollution issues we critically assess the MAP engagement processes in the FAIRWAY case studies. We look at lessons learned and map opportunities and bottlenecks for meaningful engagement, shed light on challenges and how they have been addressed, and explore the future sustainability of the engagement platforms beyond the lifetime of the project. Here we present feedback from Overijssel MAP participants on the performance and functioning of their MAP that was fed into that assessment to enable the harvesting of lessons and best practice.

Contents table
1. Description of MAP
2. Problem identification and shared understanding
3. Achievement
4. Engagement process and participation
5. Trust
6. Conflicts
7. Future sustainability of MAP
8. Lessons learned

1. Description of MAP

The case study Overijssel started in the recharge areas of 5 vulnerable drinking water abstractions in the province of Overijssel, the Netherlands and consists of 6 +1 areas today. Soils are mainly sandy soils with groundwater tables typical at 2 – 4 m-sl. Land use consists of agricultural land use (mainly dairy farming with 80% grass and 20% maize), nature and some urban areas. The measures to be implemented are focused on reduction of the nitrate and pesticide leaching towards groundwater in the recharge areas of vulnerable abstraction sites in Overijssel, at the same time improving the operational result of the farm by better nutrient management and more specific use of pesticides.

Typical nitrate concentrations in the upper phreatic groundwater at the start of the pilot were averages of 92 – 161 mg NO3/l in maize and 64 – 86 mg NO3/l in grassland. All groundwater abstractions show an increase in hardness of the water due to manure application in the past. In individual abstraction wells, the nitrate standard is exceeded in Herikerberg/Goor, Wierden and Archemerberg, while in Hoge Hexel nickel concentration exceeds the standard of 15 µg/l as a result of pyrite oxidation. In addition, Bromacil exceeds the standard in Wierden and Bentazone exceeds 75% of the standard in Herikerberg/Goor regularly in individual abstraction wells. In the mixed water, standards are not exceeded. In addition, farmers from the abstraction Espelose Broek are involved in the project. This abstraction site has no issues with nitrate, only with pesticides.

In 2011 the province of Overijssel and the water company Vitens initiated the ‘Farmers for Drinking Water’ project and continue to fund the project. The consortium have taken responsibility for leading on a number of aspects of the project (e.g. RHDHV: overall management, groundwater quality, WFD; WUR: agricultural advise, prototyping farm management; Countus: agricultural accountants; and Stimuland: regional rural development & communication) Farmers who owned land parcels in recharge areas of 5 vulnerable abstractions were invited to regional meetings where field demo’s also other farmers (neighbours, …) as well as agricultural contractors, municipalities and regional press (to literally ‘spread the news’ regarding groundwater & farmer friendly measures) have been invited to facilitate the implementation of measures which are believed to be relevant measures for both the farmer and the groundwater quality. The objectives of the case study are:

  • 50 mg NO3/l in the upper phreatic groundwater below agricultural area.
  • 0,1 µg/l pesticides in the upper phreatic groundwater below agricultural area.

Targets for agricultural management of the participating farmers are:

  • N-soil surplus of max. 80-100 kgN/ha calculated by the Annual Nutrient Cycle Assessment (ANCA).
  • Max. 100 Environmental Impact Points (EIP) of individual pesticides and max 500 EIP for the total of all pesticides used.

Since 2017 the pilot Farmers for Drinking Water is part of a larger regional project (Fertile Cycle Overijssel - Vruchtbare Kringloop Overijssel - VKO). In this project, additional financing stakeholders are involved: Water boards (Drents Overijsselse Delta, Vechtstromen and Rijn&IJssel), farmers lobby organization LTO, cattle feed companies (Agrifirm and ForFarmers) and financial institutes like the most common agricultural bank (Rabobank). These regional stakeholders of VKO are not particularly active in the pilot Overijssel, although on the other hand the implementation of measures, knowledge & experience from the pilot Overijssel can now more be used in the bigger regional project because all relevant stakeholders + project structure is available.

In 2019 the project is extended within the framework of the 6th Nitrate Action Programme. The project consists of more vulnerable abstraction sites (Archemerberg, Herikerberg/Goor, Holten, Hoge Hexel, Wierden and Manderveen + Espelose Broek) and more farmers (approximately 80 dairy farmers) and approximately 10 growers. As a result, DLV and HLB also joined the project to advise the farmers and CLM to identify measures to reduce the risks of pesticides.

Respondents mention various reasons to join the MAP:

  • Advisors mention the input of knowledge or that Farmers for Drinking Water is a measure/project following the assessment of the risks of the individual drinking water abstraction sites in Overijssel.
  • Farmers mention that they have been invited to participate or mention that they prefer to look for common ways to solve the issue rather than being confronted with new and additional rules and regulations.
  • The agricultural lobby organisation mentions their position as a connecting link between farmers and policy.

The questions in the survey were answered by 10 respondents, among them farmers [4], agricultural advisers [5] and the agricultural lobby organization [1]. The province of Overijssel and the water company Vitens as main stakeholders did not respond.  

2. Problem identification and shared understanding

There is broad consensus with the stakeholders about the central problem: improving groundwater quality (nitrate < 50 NO3/l) by improving the efficiency of the use of nutrients through a mutual gain approach. One of the respondents mentioned the element of integrating theory and practice as an approach to meet and resolve this issue.

Respondents are unanimous in the way they flag the extent of the shared understanding of the participants in the MAP.  

3. Achievement

The stakeholders consider the MAP successful in addressing the issue: 5 respondents mention ‘to a certain extent successful’, 4 respondents mention ‘successful’ and 1 respondent mention ‘very successful’. The concern of the stakeholders indicating ‘to a certain extent successful’ relates to the uncertainty in meeting the standards in the groundwater: ‘Standards can easily be set, but it is not so easy to meet these standards’. The respondents mention different types of successes:

  • The fact that the management target of farmers (i.e. N-soil surplus of max. 80-100 kgN/ha calculated by the Annual Nutrient Cycle Assessment (ANCA)) is met, but the nitrate concentration is still above the limit.
  • The fact that different stakeholders are sitting together to discuss the issue and strategies to meet the standards.

Stakeholders mention various new insights gained through participation in the MAP:

  • ‘I am feeding cows for years now, but feeding the soil is new for me’.
  • The willingness of farmers to discuss and improve their management.
  • The fact that farmers and their points of view are taken seriously. In the MAP stakeholders are ‘talking with farmers rather than talking about farmers’.
  • Knowledge and trust are essential to identify measures and to help farmers implementing them.
  • The changes observed by the respondents are directly related to these new insights:
  • The willingness of farmers to participate in a MAP to meet groundwater standards and awareness to improve groundwater as drinking water resource.
  • An increased awareness in farm and soil management regarding nutrients.
  • The MAP enhances the contact of farmers with the province and water company. Farmers are increasingly using the project to discuss other issues. So not only farm management but also engagement has developed over time.
  • The exchange of knowledge and experience in the MAP helps farmers with practical issues in their farm management: to grow better catch crops, better valuation of cow feed, lower N-content manure by changes in feed.

Overall, new insights and changes observed by the respondents consist both of the functioning of the MAP as a trust-building platform and an opportunity to discuss different points of view and the functioning of the MAP as platform to exchange knowledge and experiences.  

4. Engagement process and participation

There is broad consensus with the stakeholders that they can influence the priorities in the MAP – at least to a certain extent. They also consider the MAP to be a successful platform for engagement. As reasons for the MAP to be successful, respondents mention:

  • The MAP serves as a platform to discuss different viewpoints, understand different stakeholders and enhance awareness of the impact of agricultural management in relation to groundwater quality issues.
  • The MAP creates a network in which people can find each other more easily – and farmers use this MAP to also discuss other issues and potential solutions such as the drought-issue.
  • The MAP contributes to building trust and exchange of knowledge and experiences.  

5. Trust

The stakeholders mention a wide variety of trust-building factors:

  • Understanding each other’s viewpoints [4]
  • Exchange of knowledge and experiences [2]
  • Informal contact [1]
  • Other [3]

Half of the stakeholders do not mention anything that has weakened the trust in the MAP. The other half of the stakeholders mention two factors:

  • Press releases about the impact of agriculture on water quality by the water company or related organisations without mentioning the fact that Farmers for Drinking Water is the exception when it comes to that impact.
  • Farmers mention the fact that every new tender procedure may result in a new staff of agricultural advisors. And history has shown that some are better than others. The current staff is good.  

6. Conflicts

There is broad consensus with the stakeholders that conflicts are solved either by discussions as part of general meetings or as separately organized meetings with the stakeholders concerned. One of the farmers mentions that it takes a lot more time to recover from conflicts regarding a trust-issue, i.e. press releases, than regular issues regarding differences in points of view.  

7. Future sustainability of MAP

 Only one respondent doesn’t see any limiting factors for the long-term sustainability of the MAP. The reasons mentioned by the other respondents, are:

  • If, despite of all effort, the standards are not met and rules and regulations are tightened, everything has been in vain [6].
  • Lack of structural measures and financial incentives [1].
  • The measures are voluntary and the gain for the farmer is limited. This is a threat for the long-term sustainability of the MAP.  

8. Lessons learned

Regarding the lessons learned, respondents indicate a wide variety of lessons learned about the functioning of the MAP:

  • Have trust and give trust – based on equality (and don’t get too annoyed by press releases).
  • Listen to each other and show the perspective of farm management in solving this issue. A big part of the Farmers for drinking water is to make farmers understand the struggles that the water companies are facing, but also making the province and water company understand the issues farmers face. Together they can come up with solutions.
  • Get started in concrete areas to solve real world problems together with farmers – and bring theory to practice and use of practical experience to refine theory!
  • Both the approach (MGA) and individual advise on farm management in combination with economic impact on financial results proved very successful. However, voluntary approach & measures may not be enough to meet the standards.

But also lessons regarding effective measures to reduce nitrate leaching or improve plant uptake are mentioned. 


Note: For full references to papers quoted in this article see


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