The Netherlands is a safe country when it comes to water management, but at the same time it is still vulnerable to climate change. It is well protected from rising water levels, but there is still a lot of work to be done in the coming years. Climate change is bringing new challenges, such as drought. The work on the delta needs to speed up and intensify. The water situation swings between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’, and balancing this shift is central to the Dutch Delta Programme 2021. Delta Commissioner Peter Glas explains the country’s goals and how the Dutch water sector can contribute to them. He makes the case that this goes beyond only technology, but also includes governance. Although the latter is less visible, it is just as iconic as the major hydraulic engineering works for which the Netherlands is so well known.
‘The Netherlands, safe but fragile. It sounds like a contradiction, but it isn't. It is safe because we have been working with water for a very long time – we did not start yesterday. We have accomplished a lot and we have robust funding for decades to come, but we need to keep on working. If we want to avoid flooding, we will need to reinforce approximately 1,500 kilometres of dikes throughout the country over the next 30 years. This is almost one kilometre a week, a huge operation but much needed now that we are seeing the impacts of climate change accelerating. The weather extremes are getting steeper and we must arm ourselves with flexible and adaptive solutions at a higher pace. The urgency is increasingly pressing.
Up to a few years ago, the emphasis was on water safety, rising seawater levels and freshwater availability. The Netherlands was and still is a water drainage machine, and we have organised this very competently. However, with increasing drought, we need to find a new balance. Our water system needs to retain water better than it does now. Luckily, this shift is already on the way.
We used to look at where and how much water was needed, and then we brought it there. Now we are increasingly looking at how much water we have and we are asking consumers, industry and agriculture to adapt and to use water more efficiently. This is a clear change in our thinking and approach: water must lead, not follow. Dutch expertise is used worldwide for smart irrigation and crops that need less water. We will increasingly need to apply this expertise to our own country.
Everything we do not only has financial implications, but also space implications. Keeping water out means higher dikes which are wider. And storing water also requires space, above and below ground. This has to be taken into account when developing new areas. This is reflected in the new Delta Programme that is increasingly connecting flood risk management, water availability and spatial adaptation. And we are making the connection with the agricultural transition, the mobility transition and ambitious housing construction strategies. We need to build up to one million new houses by 2030. The question is, where and how can we build new climate-proof and water-resilient residences? My message is: put these dilemmas on the table immediately while exploring options, and let them guide the design and implementation process. If we do not take an adaptive approach, the damage could exceed EUR 100 billion by 2050. We can largely or even completely avoid this.
The Dutch Delta Programme is a long-term collaboration between different government authorities. But it is not just about the Government. The Netherlands is rightly proud of its ‘golden triangle’ of government, science and business. We have a well-organised and manageable country and we share a lot of knowledge across the public and private sectors, for example through the National Water and Climate Knowledge and Innovation Programme. This is a great strength. We jointly develop strategies and plans, and we have companies that can then design, build and maintain them. In this way, we continuously work on a sustainable climate-proof Netherlands.
At the same time, we keep presenting the Netherlands as a showroom for the world to demonstrate how we are contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals with our expertise in both technology and governance. There has always been a lot of international interest in the way we handle water. Traditionally, this was mainly in our iconic hydraulic engineering works. But in recent years, I have seen increasing interest in the way we have set up our governance, robustly and adaptively, that is based on water authorities and funding secured for decades to come. This makes the foundations of the Delta Programme strong. It does not depend on elections with their associated budgetary uncertainties. Instead, we can look generations ahead.
I am always happy to explain this to international delegations and to share our vision at international onsite or online meetings. For instance, Dutch Water Envoy Henk Ovink and I recently talked about the Dutch long term approach to water and climate adaptation at a round table meeting of the Centre for Liveable Cities Singapore. We are gladly sharing the same experience at the the OECD Water Governance Initiative, of which I am Chairman. This Initiative is a multi-stakeholder technical platform to share knowledge, experience, and best practices on water governance across different levels of government. We need to join forces, in the Netherlands and internationally.
Our Delta Programme is a mechanism to keep moving and adapting along the way. We do not know exactly what to expect in the future, so we need to steer through the fog. We know less than we would like, but we still need to take decisions. That is why we think in terms of scenarios that describe plausible futures. Subsequently, the trick is to be able to adapt implementation to actual developments, and to the speed with which they take place.
The corona crisis clearly shows the importance of an approach like this. We cannot plan for these kinds of disruptions, but there is one thing we can do: make sure that we are optimally prepared. It is clear to me that we need to be more robust and adaptive if we are to become more resilient and be able to absorb shocks. When it comes to water safety, water shortage and drought, we cannot wait for another serious shock to occur. It is the same as in our vital healthcare system: it is too big a risk to just have the bare minimum number of hospital beds. The water sector is just as vital.
This is what I stand for. My motivation is that we, as a society, together, are responsible for our planet. When I was 16 in 1972, I read the Club of Rome report, ‘The Limits to Growth’. It is still on my bookcase and it still helps me set my compass.’