Beeld: Sicco van Grieken

Jelle Hannema is CEO of Vitens, The Netherlands’ largest drinking water supply company. Vitens employs over 1,430 people who feel united in their passion for water. People who work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to extract, purify and deliver high-quality drinking water for 5,4 million people, and sharing knowledge and experience with more than twenty million people in countries where safe drinking water is not taken for granted. Jelle: “The passion for working with water is contagious. It got me too.”

Can you tell me a bit more about your background?
“Born and raised in the northern part of The Netherlands, I’m used cycling downwind. That combativeness always came in handy, in every job I’ve taken up, and being a managerial solicitor with no experience in the water sector before joining Vitens. Here, my knowledge bridged the gap between what I offer and what Vitens needs. As a complementary team we balance the need and availability of ground water, with a strategic vision on our infrastructure, arrangements with the public authorities, investment planning and suitable maintenance concepts.”

What is your drive to work with water?
“Despite never working in the water sector before Vitens, the sector always appealed to me, being on the cutting edge of the private and public sector, in an organisation that is of this level of social importance. Realizing reliable supply of top quality water to so many households is an important job. My drive is to serve at general interest and water as topic really got me. Water is life, being strongly connected to our nature and economy. Water unifies.”

What are your current challenges for Vitens?
“If you’d asked me that question four years ago, I’d give you one answer: water quality. Four years ago that was our main, maybe only challenge. The quality of our sources, agricultural emission, the efforts we make to secure water supply. Water quality demanded our focus, in order to serve public health.
But over the years we’re facing other challenges. For one, we are facing the increasing threat of cybercrime. Cyber security is high on our agenda. Then there is drought, caused by climate change. We remove (drinking) water from the (water) system, but water scarcity increases and other parties need water too. We have to justify our raison d’etre; or right to exist should not be disputed and should not leave any question marks. And we have to discuss the use of water with other stakeholders, like farmers, Water Boards and environmental organisations. In collaboration we find better ways to use water, to retain water, to win water. We all have to put our best foot forward, when it comes to both use and production. If we want to make it better, we have to understand we’re more than the sum of its parts. We need to overcome traditional methods and arrangements.”

Can you give a more concrete example?
“Water use is a strategic theme for us. We aim to decrease water use, for public and private clients, by 5%. Circularity is another important theme, how can we optimise the reuse of water in our system, don’t spill a drop and draw groundwater and purify to drinking water both efficiently and sustainably? To achieve this, we do research, for instance with Waterschap Vallei en Veluwe. For this research we apply treated (clean) effluent in parcels close to the water extraction. This way of recharging groundwater is the fuel of the groundwater system.”

Do you have any examples on a more international scale?

“Water supply and sanitation in Singapore is characterised by a number of achievements in the challenging environment of a densely populated land. They aim to keep every drop within the system, and currently even use reverse osmosis for its desalination, which uses about 3.5kWh/m3 of energy to make seawater drinkable. This process produces pure drinking water by pushing seawater through membranes to remove dissolved salts and minerals.”

What should the AIWW community do to further improve what we’re working on (see themes)?
“Maintain and further develop relationships with international water companies. AIWW is an interesting platform to facilitate meet ups and make sure contributions of all participants are shared. Balancing give and take is a challenge, especially in this time and age, where the pandemic forces us to meet virtually. When you meet face to face the process of give and take is more natural: it is easier to ask further questions to really get to the point. In meeting online it is more difficult to find your peers and discuss topics in more depth though.

Online events offer the opportunity to focus on the themes you’re working on, which is amazing, since everyone’s lack of time is a given. But to deepen the themes the right content must be handed on a plate and selected carefully. Then stakeholders can dig deeper into the topics and be more actionable. AIWW plays an important and unique role in making sure people like me meet their peers, working on the same issues, on the same level.”