Speech by Government Commissioner for the Delta Programme in the Netherlands, Mr. Wim Kuijken, at the plenary opening session of the World Water Week in Singapore on Tuesday 29 June 2010

Ladies and gentlemen, Coastal regions and deltas across the globe benefit from their strategic locations, but such locations also face challenges; challenges that are related to changes in sea level and the climate, to freshwater supply and water management.

As government commissioner for the Delta Programme I have been asked to give you an idea of how we in the Netherlands are dealing with these challenges. I welcome this opportunity, because with a long history of water management in the Netherlands, we do not do so in isolation. We see a global responsibility and role, as is exemplified by the cooperation between Dutch partners and many foreign countries.

[Map 1: The Netherlands, with flood-prone area]

On this map you can see that one-quarter of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Additionally, almost one-third is prone to flooding from rivers.

So, over half of the Netherlands is vulnerable to rising water, and it is precisely that part of the country that is a densely populated urban area. This is where two-thirds of our Gross National Product is earned and where our mainports are located.

And yet in the Netherlands we feel completely at ease, because the Netherlands is the best-protected delta in the world. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we want to keep it!

Physical safety must be maintained. This is a lesson we have learned from the past. On February 1,1953, things went terribly wrong in the Netherlands. A fatal combination of a northwesterly storm and spring tide drove up the sea level. Dikes burst; water flooded a large part of the country and many people drowned.  

We never want to experience that again. That is why we built the famous Delta Works – to keep the Netherlands safe from the water. It is safe for now, but what about the future?  

Our world is changing. The Dutch population has grown from eleven million in 1960 to 16.5 million people today. And our invested capital – from buildings to infrastructure – has increased enormously. This deserves additional protection.

And our climate is changing. The sea level is rising, while our soil is subsiding. We predict drier summers and wetter winters in the Netherlands. If we do nothing, in extreme situations we may be faced with a shortage of freshwater in the summer and flooding rivers in the winter.  

We cannot predict exactly how quickly these changes will take place. But we do want to take them into consideration.

What challenges are we facing? I can give you a practical example, that of the Rotterdam region.

[Map 2: Rhine Estuary area]

Rotterdam has the largest port in Europe and is a major driving force for our economy. It is situated on an open river and sea system. At the same time, it is part of a large urban region.

The question is: how can we protect this important region from the rising waters of both the sea and the river? We are examining three alternatives: open, with high dikes; closed, with locks; or closable open, with a system of flood barriers. All these alternatives have consequences for the port, for urban development, for the natural environment, or for all three.  

The freshwater supply for the area is also a concern. If the sea level rises, in dry periods more saltwater will penetrate via the river estuaries. We are examining how we can use water-storage basins, like our central lake IJsselmeer, to effectively regulate our freshwater supply.

As I mentioned, the Netherlands today is the best-protected delta in the world, but we are facing challenges. And because dramatic, physical interventions require sufficient implementation time, we need to look further ahead, to the end of this century.

That is why the Dutch government decided to set up the Delta Programme: so that future generations will inherit a safe country in which to live, and to safeguard our economy.

The Delta Programme, for which I am responsible, sets out what we must have accomplished by about 2050 to achieve this goal.   

It is also my task to monitor the progress of the programme. This will be set down in special legislation: the Delta Act. This Act will also guarantee financing through a dedicated Delta Fund.   The programme itself will be updated yearly.

Using the example of Rotterdam, I already illustrated that we do not look at safety in isolation, but in relation to other aspects. We want the Netherlands to retain a pleasant, attractive and open landscape. Our country must not become a watertight bunker.  

Not only has the Dutch government put safety high on the agenda, but it also has a keen eye for issues like urban development, agriculture, nature and recreation. Looking further ahead allows us to take the time to incorporate both safety and quality of spatial planning into our plans and thus make safety aesthetically pleasing.

For our programme we actively seek support in society. I work together with ministries, provinces and water boards. I involve citizens and advocacy groups. In this respect I would also like to mention cooperation between knowledge institutes and companies. The Netherlands Water Partnership is such a network that brings together the private sector, government, knowledge institutions and NGOs. As a matter of fact, in partnership with Singapore’s Water Agency PUB, it will open the Netherlands Water House here in Singapore this week. Deltares, a Dutch delta technology knowledge institution is also important for my programme and has long been cooperating with Singaporean institutions in the Singapore Delft Water Alliance.

Times of change call for flexible and adaptive solutions. Wherever possible we are opting for innovative and sustainable methods, we choose to build with nature. In the past we protected reclaimed land with dikes, now we are creating land to protect ourselves by adding sand. We prefer to maintain our coast by replenishing sand rather than by building high sea walls, and we use natural processes at the coastline wherever possible. We give rivers the room they need; we give water a prominent place in cities, for storage and recreation, thereby increasing the attractiveness of our living environment. In this way we make water our ally and our country safe.  

Ladies and gentlemen, in brief,

The Delta Programme will make the Netherlands safe for the centuries ahead.   It aims to prevent disaster, instead of responding to its consequences. As government commissioner I work together with all layers of our administration and with different partners and groups in society. We choose to work with flexible and adaptive solutions as long as possible, to ensure a safe and attractive Netherlands. Of course, the Netherlands is not alone in studying the possible impact of climate change on water security. But studying is not enough. An all-encompassing, flexible and adaptive approach is needed today to ensure our safety in the future. This is what the Delta Programme offers.

I hope that at this international convention we will be able to inspire one another to face the challenges that lie ahead of us.