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Henk Ovink

He sees water as the number one global risk, but also as an opportunity for cultural change. Henk Ovink is a man with a mission. As Special Envoy for International Water Affairs he represents the Netherlands in global water management issues.

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A water-safe and water-secure world. A dream? The challenges are immense. But thanks to the connective power of water, we can tip the balance and work towards water security for all. But we have to keep our promises: less than 2 degrees increase in the Earth’s temperature, and achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Working together is the way ahead for peace, prosperity, quality of life and safety, for our societies and for the planet.

The Dutch know that living with water calls for close collaboration. Our ability to form alliances has given us the foundations for a safe and beautiful country. Van Oord is in a perfect position to help us accomplish our collective goals, to build a resilient and sustainable planet for all. And as a matter of fact, Van Oord is already ahead of the game with initiatives like the Ecoshape partnership, which manages the public-private Building with Nature innovation programme. Another example is the Transition Coalition, a Dutch business community that is endeavouring to accelerate the energy transition and achieve the Paris climate objectives. I’d like to call on Van Oord and its partners to keep up this collaborative approach so that we can deliver on our collective promise to future generations. We’re merely the custodians of a planet that we inherited from our parents. Our job is to take care of it and leave it in much better shape for our children. There’s no time to waste; we need to marshal all our intellectual and creative forces to drive real implementation. And we need Van Oord to inspire the world and lead by example with its innovative and sustainable projects.

How do you envision the future of water safety and what would be your advice to Van Oord in that regard?

In Vietnam, a Dutch team has developed a plan for the Mekong Delta. We’re doing the same in Peru, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Our work with Disaster Risk Reduction Teams is helping countries across the globe. And in partnership with the Rotterdam Architecture Biennale, our new Climate Adaptation Centre and the Chinese Investment Bank, we’re working on projects in Southeast Asia. This new initiative, known as ‘Water as Leverage’, was launched at the UN Climate Conference COP23 in Bonn to develop climate-resilient investment opportunities in three Asian cities; Chennai, Semarang and Khulna.

A recent Dutch example is the ‘Room for the River’ programme. Experience has taught the Dutch that damming rivers just passes on the risks elsewhere, and that’s why their Room for the River programme gives the river more space instead of trying to contain the water. Projects have been carried out at more than thirty locations to give the river enough space to flood safely, improving the quality of the immediate surroundings at the same time. This is an inspiring example of a project that combines innovative engineering and new solutions with collaboration at every level. Innovation and engineering went hand in hand with active stakeholder management. The Netherlands owes it to itself and to the world to put this kind of know-how and expertise to even better use. With our pioneers in water technology, urban delta management and maritime technology, our centuries of experience, and our innovations in Building with Nature, water governance and landscape design, the Netherlands is in a strong position to help other countries.

One way of moving forward in global water risk management is to build a portfolio of water resiliency projects. Can you give us any examples? Are there opportunities for the Netherlands in this sector?

Yesterday’s solutions will not solve tomorrow’s problems. Worse, yesterday’s solutions often provoke them or make new approaches less feasible. Our current systems get in the way – our policies, regulations, governance and funding systems are often based on existing knowledge, while innovation comes from what we don’t know. We need a better understanding of future risks, uncertainties and strengths. We need to understand the complexity of the issues at stake. With courage, leadership and new knowledge, we can rebuild from tomorrow’s perspective. To go forward, we must take our inspiration from the future.

Climate change is a slow process. Up to now, the response has been equally slow, and has not led to preparedness. We have a choice to make!

When a disaster hits, the initial response is driven by fear and hatred. We have just lost our homes, our businesses, even family and friends. It’s hard then to be innovative, to look ahead and be bold. When a disaster strikes, we tend to look back and want to restore what was lost. However, when rebuilding is merely a ‘copy and paste’ of what was, or at best a re-imagining of what was destroyed, we fail to make the most of our disasters.

Water-related disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity. They take the shape of natural disasters but also geopolitical conflicts related to water issues, especially droughts. How do we face these challenges?

To tackle today’s challenges, we need everyone: governments, businesses, scientists, NGOs, community leaders and activists. And not just because good plans otherwise fail in the implementation stage; without this coalition, we won’t get around to dealing with the real problems at all. This calls for radical inclusiveness. It’s only by involving everyone – because we’re all part of the problem as much as we’re part of the solution – that we can arrive at real, transformative solutions.

Collaboration is about having a shared goal, with lobbies and vested interests making way for understanding and added value. Whereas negotiation always leads to an average – with everyone compromising a little until they reach a middle ground – collaboration is not about the average but about achieving the best results: it takes everyone to change everything.

We need to collaborate to get to the best solutions, with support and ambition. And we have to start on the ground, where the challenges are most tangible. That’s why the marine contracting industry is so pivotal: its innovative capacity starts on the ground. It can bridge the gap between policy on paper and implementation in practice.

Water presents a major threat to the world population, mainly in the form of droughts and floods. Why is collaboration important for this global problem and what can the marine contracting industry do to contribute?

The climate crisis is a water crisis. Nine in ten natural disasters are water-related and the risks and impacts of climate change continue to grow in magnitude and frequency.

Too much water, too little water and polluted water affect the entire globe, but nowhere on earth are water-related disasters as widespread and costly, both in terms of human life and loss of wealth, as in South and Southeast Asia. Asian cities account for the largest share of the worldwide population affected by rising sea levels. Then again, the rest of the world isn’t in much better shape with the threats of too much and polluted water or no water at all, and the United Nations estimates that the number of climate refugees will keep rising dramatically.

The distinction between prevention and repair is a false one, because both are essential. We need to start at the source: reduce greenhouse gases and make efficient and careful use of our planet and all our resources. At the same time, we need to prepare for tomorrow’s extremes and adapt – now! There’s no time to waste: severe weather events like Harvey will not stop. On the contrary, they’re the new normal and getting more extreme every year.

You travel across the globe to promote cooperation in water risk management. From your perspective, what parts of the world are most at risk of rising water levels? How do we make the transition from emergency response to risk prevention? 

Henk Ovink

He sees water as the number one global risk, but also as an opportunity for cultural change. Henk Ovink is a man with a mission. As Special Envoy for International Water Affairs he represents the Netherlands in global water management issues.

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