Speech by Government Commissioner for the Delta Programme in the Netherlands, Mr. Wim Kuijken, at the International water conference 'Day of the Deltas' on Friday 20 August, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking Ms. Kruisinga and the Province of Noord-Holland for hosting this conference and inviting all the international guests that are present. This gives us the opportunity to share our views and exchange knowledge of delta management.  

In 2025 over half the world population will be living in cities in coastal regions, cities with open ports and where the influence of water is profound, and will increase due to global warming.

As government commissioner for the Dutch 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 and treatment in the Netherlands, we do not deal with these challenges in isolation. We see a global responsibility and role. Together with the public and private sectors, the Dutch government actively cooperates with a large number of countries to assist with their specific water challenges and to learn from them.

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. Some of the deepest polders in the Netherlands lie more than 6 meters below sea level!

So, over half of the Netherlands is vulnerable to rising water, and it is precisely this part of the country that is the most 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! The Dutch government decided to set up the Delta Programme: so that our children and their children will inherit a safe country to live in, and to safeguard our economy.

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. More than 1800 people drowned and 100.000 lost their homes and possessions.

We never want to experience that again. That is why, in the last century, we built the famous Delta Works – to keep the Netherlands safe from the water. We also work on our dikes, dunes and seacoast to strengthen the weak links.

Also here in the province of Noord-Holland: today, the Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management took the decision about the last two weak links in its coast. A sandy and hybrid solution is made possible.

So, the Netherlands is safe for now, but what about the future, also after 2050?  

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, so we work on new standards for safety.

Our climate is changing. We measure that the sea level is rising, while our soil is subsiding. We predict drier summers and wetter winters in the Netherlands. We work with four scenario’s of our meteorological institute. Drier summers may under extreme circumstances lead to fresh water shortages, for instance in the Western part of the country with important agricultural and industrial activities. Low water levels may also impede inland river traffic, thus endangering our position as the leading gateway to Europe. Extremely high water levels in winter on the other may lead to increased risk of flooding. In 1993 and 1995 river levels reached a critical threshold. After this period we started the program 'Room for the River', which will be finished around 2015.

If we see the images from abroad: of course the terrible disaster in Pakistan, but also closer to home in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, we know that it’s serious business we’re working on. When it goes wrong in the Netherlands, it will be a disaster for us and our future. The Delta programme must protect us against this disaster.

We cannot predict exactly how quickly changes will take place. But we do want to take them into consideration; we have to do so because of the characteristics of our delta. For instance the Rotterdam area with an important and open seaport and thus an open connection between river and sea. Millions of people live there and it’s an important mainport area for our country. We have to decide how – for the future – we will defend this region against the effects of climate change.

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

As I mentioned, the Netherlands today is the best-protected delta in the world, but we are facing challenges. And because dramatic, physical interventions take time, sometimes over 30 years, we need to look further ahead, to the end of this century. In the mean time we can do a lot with adaptive measures. Like adding sand to the coast to protect and create, and by giving rivers more room if needed and possible.

The Delta Programme is a national programme. The program sets out what we must have accomplished by about 2050 in order to achieve our goals. In my role as Government Commissioner, I work closely together with provinces, ministers, municipalities and waterboards, but also with knowledge institutes, businesses and advocacy groups. The programme and the commissioner 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, in a very transparent process.

The task of the government commissioner for the delta programme is unique and innovative. This administrative innovation was seen as essential to accommodate the long-term character of the Delta Programme.

The Delta Programme is divided into 6 regional and 3 generic programmes. Here you see an overview of the 6 regional programmes: Waddensea, Coast, IJsselmeer, Rivers, Rhine estuary – Drecht cities and South-West Delta). The generic programmes cover safety standards, fresh water supply, and new construction and restructuring. A close connection exists between the solutions and challenges of these different sub-programmes and one of my duties is to direct and coordinate this. We try to structure our research in such a way that a few major decisions will be taken in 2014 in close relation. These so-called Delta decisions will to a large extent structure the orientation of our subsequent solutions.  

I already illustrated that we do not look at safety in isolation, but in relation to other aspects. We want the Netherlands to remain a pleasant and attractive country to live in. It must not become a watertight bunker.  

Not only has the Dutch government put safety high on the agenda, but at the same time it also has a keen eye for issues like sustainable urban development, agriculture, nature and recreation. And it is exactly because we are looking ahead that we are able to take the time to incorporate both safety and quality of spatial planning into our plans and thus make safety attractive. This is where the interests of the different levels of government and advocacy groups are united. Together we do the fact-finding and we look for the optimal solution, in which safety is leading, but in which other issues are not lost out of sight.

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 and we prepare bigger decisions to be taken if necessary. Of course, the Netherlands is not alone in studying the possible impact of climate change on water security. But studying is not enough. The Netherlands has chosen an innovative administrative solution to enable it to act, characterised by the 5 Ds: Delta Programme, Delta Act, Delta Fund, Delta Commissioner and Delta Decisions. By way of these 5 Ds and using an all-encompassing flexible and adaptive approach we work on our future safety.

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