Deltas around the world are facing water challenges connected to the impact of climate change. Much attention is paid to the dynamic deltas in the Global South, which are still in full development. But in the Global North, where we have tamed the deltas, too, a lot of work needs to be done and large investments made in infrastructure to ensure water safety and protect these unique landscapes in the coming decades.
The challenges everywhere are such that we may need to take drastic measures rather than incremental steps. These drastic measures have long lead times that require timely planning. Delta design is key in identifying, exploring and putting a value on the development of pathways leading to a water resilient delta. This is the message of Chris Zevenbergen, Professor of Delta Urbanism at TU Delft, a member of the Netherlands Water Partnership.
“The relationship between water safety, water security and spatial planning is closely connected in deltas, but these linkages are often ignored in our planning processes. Flooding, saltwater intrusion and drought-induced stress have an immense impact on urbanisation, infrastructure and agriculture. All these functions are intertwined and strategies to sustainable delta development seem to be highly complex and theoretical, often leading to the postponement of large infrastructure investment decisions.
The Mekong Delta is a very striking example in the Global South. It faces these gigantic problems which call for immediate action. An integral design-led approach may catalyse the process of planning and decision-making, and cut through the complexities associated with the delivery of integrated solutions."
“Many deltas in the Global North seem to be tamed and fully developed – mission accomplished. However, the next challenge is to secure the performance of the existing infrastructure in anticipation of climate change impacts. We are also beginning to realise that the anticipated effects of climate change, such as extreme rainfall and long droughts, are already occurring.”
"Recently, in its white paper entitled ‘Ruimte voor de toekomst’ (spatial claims for the future, in Dutch), the engineering firm Sweco calculated that the five largest planning and investment projects in the Netherlands jointly cost more than EUR 900 billion and will require more than 100,000 hectares of land by 2050. The report warns that investment decisions need to consider the effects of a higher sea level rise.
There is growing awareness that our current knowledge on the probability of occurrence and the impact of extreme climate scenarios is insufficient to support the long-term planning of our delta. At present, our delta planning is currently studying the scenario of a two metre sea level rise by 2100 and labelling it as a plausible scenario. This scenario may be highly unlikely, but it would have major consequences and Sweco’s report argues that this scenario needs to be considered when thinking about questions such as where we can build a million new houses?"
"Adaptive planning has been greatly promoted in the last 10 to 15 years as a way of moving forward. The future is uncertain and the risk of doing too much – over-investing – or too little must be reduced. We assumed that there was still enough time to act. But, given the long lead time of future interventions, the question now seems to be whether we should switch from an adaptive planning approach to a planned adaptation one? In this context, anticipation means taking action now and building the capacities needed for the timely implementation of the interventions required in the future.
We must think ahead and start building up resources, including land, and developing the knowledge foundation. If we do not do so, many of these immense future investments will not be fit for purpose when implemented or may be implemented too late. What is currently happening in the Netherlands is relevant to all deltas, whether they are dynamic, such as in the southern hemisphere, or ‘mature and more stable’ as in the northern hemisphere.”
"It is more important than ever to bring engineering, spatial planning, socio-economic disciplines and design together. Design is creating and visualising what is not there yet. It does not predict a static outcome, but a snapshot in time. It is also about exploring uncertain futures and helping to identify and understand pathways which may lead to a climate resilient future. It involves people in a vision and connects stakeholders; it can raise awareness and target political agenda influencing. In this way, design can create a broad support base – a precondition for the necessary acceleration and upscaling of appropriate infrastructure investments, particularly in the Global South.
To build this broad support base, we need the engagement of experts from different disciplines who are willing to go beyond their field and to learn together in this process. Whatever emerges must make sense and proposed interventions need to be substantiated. Design must lead, not mislead. We therefore need to connect designers with experts in a wide range of disciplines, including users and policymakers. It is precisely the interaction of design with engineering and governance that makes this approach interesting and effective.”
“The Netherlands has been renowned around the world for decades as one of the leading countries in connecting knowledge of flood risk management with spatial planning and quality through design, with the intention of creating an integrated and long-term vision and approach. The Room for the River programme is a good example of this. However, the embedding of design as an inclusive process to identify and derive benefits from interdependencies has started to diminish in recent years. The challenges that we face today, such as bringing about the envisioned investments in our infrastructure in the coming 50 years, require restoring and strengthening the bonds that we showcased in projects in the Room for the River programme. Naturally, this is also relevant for our international reputation as we are in the vanguard.
Delta design needs a new impetus, and the methodologies will probably need to be revisited and adjusted to contemporary needs. They need to be made fit for purpose to tackle the challenges of longer lead times and shorter warning times for interventions.”
"The challenges that urban deltas are facing call for systems change if these deltas are to benefit from integrated, sustainable, inclusive and probably radical innovative solutions. The urgency becomes clear when we realise that both the lead time and the lifetime of our next generation infrastructure will be beyond decades. We must avoid entering a domain where we can no longer rely on anticipation and thus lag behind reality."