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Art that regenerates groundwater

Ronald Van Der Mejis' sound installation in the Zeisterbos Forest

Alessandra Navazio
a story by
Alessandra Navazio
 
 
Art that regenerates groundwater

“H2O I will give it back to you” restores 130 litres of water every day, which is the average daily consumption of a person living in the Netherlands. Consisting of a steel drop and a sound sprinkler, it claims sustainable groundwater management

Approximately 17 square kilometres of aquifers dry up around the world every year1: an “insurance of nature” as defined by the World Bank2, which is failing. Water flowing underground has a vital socio-economic value: worldwide we use groundwater for 49% of global domestic use and 43% of irrigation of agricultural land. It is no coincidence that groundwater is also considered a bulwark against malnutrition. «Groundwater is not well known, it is taken for granted,» says architect and artist Ronald Van Der Mejis, who designed and realised the sound installation H20 I will give it back to you everyday, in the ancient Zeisterbos forest in Utrecht, to bring it to public attention. One of the largest parks in the Netherlands where the historical sources of irrigation are no longer sufficient.

The problem of the Utrecht aquifer and its hills

Ronald van der Meijs is a Dutch artist. Born in 1966, he graduated in architecture from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Breda in the Netherlands and works in sculpture and installation art. He has exhibited his work in various museums and festivals in Europe, Asia and America and received a mention at the Prix Ars Electronica in 2017. Her work focuses on the intersection of culture and nature, using natural elements, light and space.

Discover Ronald van der Mejis Discover H20 I will give it back to you

Utrecht is one of the most densely populated cities in the Netherlands. Its historical water sources are surface streams and groundwater formed by infiltration from adjacent hillsides. Since the 1920s3 these historic water sources have become increasingly dry, leading to a change in the landscape and vegetation4. «The problem is wide-ranging,» explains Van Der Mejis, «there are the big industries, which take water from the ground; the farmers, who need a lot of water; the company that manages the drinking water, which always comes into our taps from groundwater».

Groundwater is no longer enough. But, on closer inspection, trees in a forest and humans in a city take on their daily water needs in a very similar way. «Tap water comes from miles and miles of underground pipes, just as trees take in water from their roots», says Van der Mejis. The problem stems from the fact that the ‘human’ water network is overused, to the detriment of the ‘natural’ one and trees. Hence the idea of H2O I will give it back to you, an art installation that can take water from Utrecht’s water supply network and give it back to nature, ‘stealing’ it like a modern-day Robin Hood from those who use too much to give it to those who no longer have any. 

The drop of water that makes you think

H20 I will give it back to you everyday is a work on the borderline between architecture and land art: realised in March 2023 and commissioned by the Fluid Future Fondation5, in cooperation with Utrechts Landschap6 and the Utrechtse Heuvelrug National Park, will remain as a permanent installation in the Utrechtse Heuvelrug nature reserve for the next ten years.

Una mappa di Utrechtse Heuvelrug. Fonte: Blue Agenda National Park Utrechtse Heuvelrug. Tutti i diritti riservati.

It delivers 130 litres of water every day, which is the average daily consumption of a Dutch person. The refuelling and dispensing process takes place six times a day for two minutes. «When you have a beautiful garden and it is so dry if you water it, you allow the water to return to the soil,» explains Van der Mejis. The art installation functions, in fact, as a sound sprinkler, which sprays water and regenerates the well in which it is placed. The structure resembles a large drop of water: three metres high and one and a half metres long, it is composed of a series of weatherproof metal tubes that have been bent and welded together. Inside, like a precious resource, water ‘stolen’ from the main water system arrives, which is then sprayed outside: the spray generates a metallic sound before falling.

Some photos of the H20 installation I will give it back to you every day by Ronald van der Meijs. Source: Ronald van der Meijs. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission of the author.

H20 I will give it back to you is not the first case where water is diverted to regenerate water sources and aquifers: an example is the Los Arenales aquifer7, in Spain, replenished with wastewater, flood water from the Piron River and rainwater.

Van Der Mejis’ installation does not, however, simply aim to bring water back to the ancient, dried-up well of the forest, but to stir and provoke the consciences of citizens, starting with the materials of which it is composed. «Its realisation was not easy,» says the artist. «There are 1,500 metres of pipes with slightly different shapes and made of stainless steel that I had to bend by hand and that is reminiscent of the common water pipes found in every home in the world. I chose them because they would lead people to ask: why did you use this material? And why do they resemble the pipes that carry water in our homes?» Indeed, according to Van Der Mejis, «it is not only companies and farmers who are responsible for the problem of groundwater levels but also consumers of drinking water». Building an installation that ‘steals’ becomes a good metaphor for making visible what is not normally visible, becoming aware of the water networks that flow beneath us and the use we make of them.

The sound of change

«H20 I will give it back to you sprays water like a traditional fountain, but with explosive power and a disruptive metallic sound, which are its real strength» says Van der Mejis. «Imagine you are walking in the middle of the forest and find yourself in front of this sculpture inside the water well that suddenly starts making noise». Van Der Mejis’ sound installations are always the result of a study of the context: from history to current political and social issues, from sounds to the different elements of the ecosystem, so that the work interacts unexpectedly with all the natural elements that characterise it. «Every place has a certain meaning, a certain history, its rhythm but also its speed and uncontrollability,» explains the architect, «I always start from here when choosing the form of the work and the type of sound it can or must generate, but not only».

In H20 I will give it back to you, the structure is designed as a counterpoint to the fairytale image of ancient forest, full of oaks, pines and firs: the sound it produces, similar to a metal cage, indicates the no-win situation we are approaching and aims to generate a change in the actions of the individual and the community. The steel drop is not, therefore, simply placed in its context, but interacts with it, allowing itself to be transformed and completed by the forces of nature that react together with it. «In H20 I will give it back to you it happened, for example, that the drop completely disappeared in the water well last winter, because the rains of the winter months flooded the structure and we went from a situation of extreme water scarcity to its complete opposite» says Van Der Mejis. «They asked me, in that case, if I should intervene but I replied that it was to be accepted because it is not always possible to control the nature around us». 

There is a difference between control and conscious management of resources, and «the fact that the machine or installation may fail is intended to emphasise just that» stresses the artist, «so as we cannot control nature that is unexpected. The common thinking of control that we have has led us to an imbalance of the water resources themselves». In the Zeisterbos forest, a year after the commissioning of Van der Mejis’ work, an urban water improvement programme was born8, which will be completed in 2027 and is carrying out an in-depth analysis of how to retain water in springs and ponds and how to improve urban rainwater infiltration and replenish groundwater. 

«We need to slow down and take time to reflect,» says Van der Mejis, to understand how to manage and not control, both in the Netherlands and globally. The work in the forest, this time not Sherwood, will continue to remind us of this by re-establishing every day a more equitable and sustainable relationship between steel pipes and roots, between human society and the natural world.

 

  1.  Hasan, M. F., Smith, R., Vajedian, S., Pommerenke, R., & Majumdar, S. (2023). Global land subsidence mapping reveals widespread loss of aquifer storage capacity. Nature Communications, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-41933-z. Lo studio si basa su una triennale opera di monitoraggio di quasi 1700 falde acquifere in tutto il mondo e attinge a una serie di dati di misurazione in oltre 170.000 pozzi di monitoraggio delle acque di falda degli ultimi 40 anni. ↩︎
  2.  World Bank Group. (2024, January 22). The Hidden Wealth of Nations: Groundwater’s Critical Role in a Changing Climate. World Bank. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2023/06/14/the-hidden-wealth-of-nations-groundwater-s-critical-role-in-a-changing-climate. ↩︎
  3.  Come dimonstrano i registri storici comunali. Cfr. Proeftuin klimaatbestendige aanpak KBL in Zeisterbos. https://www.skbl.nl/proeftuin-klimaatbestendige-aanpak-kbl-in-zeisterbos/. ↩︎
  4.  Bouwstenen, Blauwe Agenda Utrechtse Heuvelrug. ↩︎
  5.  https://www.fluidfuture.nl/. ↩︎
  6. Utrechts Landschap è una Fondazione provinciale per il paesaggio fondata nel 1927 che si impegna a rafforzare e preservare la natura nella provincia olandese di Utrecht. https://www.utrechtslandschap.nl/help-mee?gad_source=1&gclid=Cj0KCQjwmMayBhDuARIsAM9HM8fJK7p8326XPJRCHaJ4zqlHQ18PpP6Q74mPCiOcEIbw938fFLWL6BAaAm_cEALw_wcB ↩︎
  7.  Nel 2011 è stato avviato il programma MAR Pedrajas–Alcazarén nei comuni di Pedrajas de San Esteban e Alcazarén: https://gripp.iwmi.org/natural-infrastructure/water-storage/the-alcazaren-pedrajas-managed-aquifer-recharge-mar-scheme-in-central-spain/. ↩︎
  8.  Il Kennisprogramma, progetto locale dell’Agenda Blu, è un’iniziativa congiunta della fondazione Kastelen Buitenplaatsenen landgoederen, Zuid-Holland, Utrecht en Gelderland, gemeente Zeist, Utrechts Landschap en Utrechts Particulier Grondbezi. Il programma si compone di tre parti: Test dello stress climatico, Green-Blue Monitore e Terreni di prova. Il Green-Blue Monitor raccoglie dati rilevanti nei punti di misurazione per capire meglio le conseguenze del cambiamento climatico e gli effetti delle misure implementate. ↩︎

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