Gerard Pichel initiated the water club. Alongside his job as a hydraulic engineer, he brought other water experts together in an informal way to share knowledge and experience. Now that Gerard Pichel retired, we decided to interview him. Which lessons can we learn from Pichel’s water club-approach?

Citizens in Dhaka crossing the river. Photo: Joep Janssen

‘In Dutch we don’t have a good translation of the English “aha moment”. We usually use the German “aha-erlebnis” instead. In the water sector I see very little aha moments. There are too little moments of recognition. That’s a shame. We’re continuously reinventing the wheel, while other countries, organisations or experts have often done a lot of work on which we could build.’

Gerard Pichel talks enthusiastically about his experiences in the water sector. We first met Pichel in 2010 in Vietnam, where he worked for Royal HaskoningDHV on a project to improve waterways in the Mekong Delta. Later, in 2016, we visited him for an article in De Correspondent about water challenges in Bangladesh. For this interview we speak with him over phone.

Pichel graduated at the Technical University of Delft under supervision of Professor Schoemaker, who taught exotic hydraulic engineering about countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia. During our interview he will mention his mentor several times more. Pichel started his career in 1980, when he went to Burkina Faso in West Africa for Euroconsult.

What took you there?
‘In Burkina Faso I worked together with engineers from the universities of Wageningen and Delft on a development project of DGIS, the Directorate-General for international cooperation of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We designed 40 dams and implemented the plan. That was urgently needed as it rains only 2 months a year in Burkina Faso, which is not enough to cultivate land a whole year round. The barriers, that we developed, retain fresh rainwater for agriculture.’

Why did you initiate the water club?
‘Back then we didn’t have e-mail, but we worked with letters and meetings instead. Most meetings between Dutch engineers, local experts and government officials were formal. Though, to develop a design, we needed information from the French, who ever since the colonisation collected data about the soil and rivers in Burkina Faso. There was no formal collaboration agreement with the French and that’s why I decided to gather knowledge informally’

‘The first water club meeting was held in my house. Over snacks and drinks, Dutch, French and local hydraulic engineers discussed the water challenges and possible interventions. We gave each other space to propose solutions. For example, on how to apply existing French data to the construction of dams, irrigation infrastructure and drinking water systems. The meetings that followed oiled the wheels of the project.’

How did local, international and Dutch water experts respond?
‘The informal water club was very successful. More and more local engineers got involved and Dutch water experts joined when they were in country, because they wanted to learn more about the local context.’

What were the keys to success?
1: Organise informal meetings
‘In a friendly setting where you give each other space, a government official will say more than in a formal meeting.’

2: Challenge the local water experts to share their knowledge
‘We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel time after time. Especially among local academics, there is a lot of knowledge available. Go speak to them, invite them and offer them a platform to share their knowledge and experiences. Make sure you challenge them to have a debate with each other, because only that way you’ll get to a aha moment.’

3: Co-create new stories
‘We should be careful that we, Dutch engineers, do not become insignificant. If we don’t have a story anymore, we will lose our position of international frontrunner. Where do you come from with your concept? What is your starting point, where do you stand now and where do you want to go to? To answer those questions, it is crucial to be in a dialogue with each other about the design or story that you want to tell.’

‘There are multiple ways of doing this, such as the water club, but the goal is the same: a comprehensive perspective to bring everyone together.’

Six years later you left for Bangladesh. There too you organised water club meetings. What differences did you see compared to the local context in Burkina Faso?
‘From 1996 to 2000, I went to Bangladesh for several short missions. After the cyclone in 2004, I was asked to move to Dhaka and coordinate the rebuilding of hydraulic infrastructure. I noticed that Bangladeshi engineers are very good at research and measurements in riverine and agricultural areas. They thirsted for knowledge and were open to debate.’

‘In the water club, I shared the work of Professors from the university of Delft, such as Schoemaker, Kop and Blommenstein. This way we got familiar with past work that other foreign experts had already done in Bangladesh. Later on, many water club participants themselves became professors. Thanks to the water club they could expand and deepen their own networks and research.’

A citizen of Ho Chi Minhstad is crossing the river. Photo: Nam Quan

Then you moved from Dhaka to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. What was your approach in this communist country?
‘Opposite to the open debate culture in Bangladesh, Vietnam was very closed. In the beginning, nobody felt confident to give a presentation, but after we won their trust, more and more Vietnamese engineers and PhD students shared their knowledge. I am still in touch with them, mainly through e-mail and WhatsApp.’

What have your learned in Burkina Faso, Bangladesh and Vietnam?
‘During the meetings of the water club we learned that many of the answers already exist, even before the Dutch come in. Often, a lot of work has been done already by local engineers, foreign water experts and even by Dutch engineers, who for instance worked on polder development in the past. And yet, we want to reinvent the wheel time after time.’

Could you give an example?
‘The “Water as Leverage” programme initiated by Dutch Special Envoy for International Water Affairs Henk Ovink, contributes positively to raising awareness about water problems in countries like Bangladesh. The question though is whether we’re not reinventing the wheel again. Take Khulna for instance, one of the delta cities in the programme: the Asian Development Bank already developed a plan in 2017 to improve water services and climate resilience in the city.’

‘The question is whether the residents of Khulna benefit from yet another plan, this time developed by the Dutch in partnership with the Chinese development bank AIIB. It actually increases the chance that plans will overlap.’

The approach of Nextblue is similar to that of the water club. We too aim at bringing local knowledge and cultural history to the attention of international water experts. We do that through stories and citizen journalism. What could you advise us?
‘Improve knowledge exchange between water experts from different countries. That is quite challenging, you only need to look at the deltas to understand why: the differences between them are huge. But there are also many similarities and therefore exchange of knowledge can help improving the livelihoods of its dwellers.’

‘Take for instance, management of tidal rivers, on which the Bangladeshi engineers gained a lot of knowledge and experience. They measured the rivers from all angles, so they know very well how you can keep a tidal channel and its outlets stable. That knowledge comes in handy for all deltas.’

‘The behaviour and measurements of river outlets are crucial for disaster risk reduction and disaster management in a coastal polder of Bangladesh. The measurements of such an outlet shall be smaller than he length of the smallest local boat, so that people can use local boats as temporary barriers during coastal floods.’

‘I mention this example to show that we need more dialogue between delta dwellers and water experts and between countries, to come to more effective water projects. More dialogue will result in more aha moments and that’s exactly what the water sector needs.’

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