The Netherlands as a global testing ground

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For Henk Ovink there can be no doubt that the Netherlands is the world authority in matters of water management, flood safety and climate change adaptation. ‘And we shall retain our leading position provided everyone, without exception, learns to work together as a close-knit team.’ Ovink stresses the importance of excellent knowledge and skills, combined with diversity and an integrated approach, in rising to the global water management challenges.

‘All the major problems in the world are in some way interconnected with the climate issue. Nowhere is the impact greater than in the water domain. Extreme weather leads to disaster situations and widespread human suffering, as we have seen in Vietnam, Mozambique and the United States in recent years. The Netherlands has faced up to the threat posed by water for many centuries. It is now time for other countries to follow suit as a matter of urgency.’ Ovink emphasises that the global challenges are enormous. ‘The water could soon be lapping at our feet. Access to clean water is also at the root of many international conflicts. If we fail to adopt a responsible and effective approach to water management, there may be disastrous consequences. At the same time, water is also a connective factor. It brings everyone together in search of solutions.’

The Netherlands’ water sector is an extremely valuable national asset. ‘Dutch knowledge in this area is the result of centuries of cooperation in water management. We are expert builders. We have our polders, our water defences and our reclaimed land. We have successfully implemented large-scale programmes such as the Delta Works and, more recently, Room for the River. I like to profile the Netherlands as a ‘testing ground’ for the rest of the world. We are often the first to develop new governance models and innovative technologies which help to enhance water quality and flood safety. I believe that we should cherish and build upon our position. We must be more aware of our excellent knowledge and skills, and we must exploit the opportunities they create.’

‘Our theoretical knowledge is matched by our practical ability. We not only devise high-quality solutions, but we can implement them as well because we have experienced professional organisations and networks. I am thinking of the water management authorities, provincial and local authorities, and private-sector specialists such as Witteveen+Bos. We can combine technology and human resources to ensure an excellent process and fully integrated solutions. We do not rely on standard ‘off the peg’ engineering. Rather, we build capacity through a multidisciplinary approach which involves other experts such as economists, ecologists and spatial planners. I really believe in the strength of this mix. The world is complex and complexity demands joint innovation. We must all help each other by analysing the issues, making the problems and opportunities transparent, and sharing our knowledge. Only by facilitating strong global coalitions can we bring about the sustainable change that is now absolutely essential.’

Henk Ovink sees a number of conditions that must be met if the Dutch water sector is to retain its international position. ‘First, we must consolidate and build upon our excellent knowledge and skills,’ he asserts. ‘It is also important to translate the long-term vision into a programmatic approach. And we must start work as quickly as possible, preferably with a focus on innovation, in order to achieve short-term results which will help achieve the long-term objectives. As Kumi Naidoo, the outgoing International Executive Director of Greenpeace, remarked in his valedictory speech, ‘I do not worry about the Earth. She does not need us: we need her!’ The Dutch water sector can make a real difference.’ 

Henk Ovink is the Netherlands’ first Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, an appointment he took up in March 2015. As the figurehead of the Dutch water sector, Ovink works to maintain good relationships with and between government authorities, the private sector, research institutes and civil society at home and abroad. He has spent much of his career at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, where he held the post of Director for National Spatial Planning and, more recently, Director-General of Spatial Planning and Water Affairs. In April 2013 he was appointed senior advisor to the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force set up by President Obama, for which he also led the ‘Rebuild by Design’ programme.