Speech by Delta Commissioner Wim Kuijken at the opening of the International Water Week, November 1, 2011

Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for your presence at the International Water Week here in Amsterdam. Delegations from around the globe have found their way to the Netherlands for this conference. International cooperation is very important; water is not limited by borders.

I would like to showing and explain to you the Dutch approach to Delta Management: the Delta Programme, for which I am the Government Commissioner. Also, I will outline the Netherlands’ policy on international cooperation regarding water. As Government Commissioner for the Delta Programme I’ve seen that delta’s and coastal regions around the world all face the same challenges. Recently I visited Florida, New York, the Thames Estuary and the city of Hamburg. Last year I was in Singapore. Our State Secretary was in Vietnam recently. Rivers and sea, where they come together, create fertile soil and bring easy access to transportation, thus creating highly attractive areas to live and work. At the same time, by nature, they are dynamic and present challenges for extensive human use. We have to work on our Delta every day.

Here in the Netherlands we monitor the change in progress: Sea level is rising, soil is subsiding, river discharges are increasing in some parts of the year, decreasing in others. Rainfall patterns are changing, erosion and salt intrusion increase. At the same time, we use the land more and more intensively and spatial developments go on. The dynamics of delta’s around the world is similar. All these similarities, in my opinion, create an obligation for us to learn from each other.

Netherlands international cooperation policy

The Netherlands sees water as an international challenge. Our objectives in international cooperation are:

  • contributing to the millennium development goals
  • creating and utilizing economic opportunities and sharing knowledge
  • emphasizing the importance of, and contribution to climate adaptation in the world    

The Netherlands has long term partnerships with 5 delta countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, Mozambique and Indonesia. We share knowledge and skills in water and delta technology and contribute to solutions to the world’s water problems. In addition to these 5 delta countries, the Netherlands collaborates with several partner countries worldwide, taking a differentiated approach depending on needs, economic situation, knowledge and opportunities. Why is it that Water plays such a central role in our international cooperation policy? For this, we need to look more into our national situation.

Netherlands approach: the Delta Programme

As you know, the Netherlands is a country particularly vulnerable to the challenges that deltas bring. Four of Europes rivers, among which the Rhine and the Meuse, reach the sea over Dutch territory. This makes the whole country a ‘multiple delta’. Almost 60% of our territory is vulnerable to flooding from either the sea or the rivers, and it is precisely in these area’s that we earn two-thirds of our national income. We use our land ever more intensively as our economy and population grow. You will understand that the changes I showed you earlier present us with tough challenges. Over the last few centuries of our history, we’ve learned more and more about protecting our country against rising waters, but we have had our share of disasters as well. Traditionally, we have responded to these disasters with large structural solutions, such as our Afsluitdijk creating lake IJsselmeer after flooding in 1916 and more recently, the famous Delta Works, after the devastating flood of 1953.

I promised to tell you more about what we like to call ‘the Dutch Delta Approach’. For this, I would like to point your attention to two important aspects of Delta Management: the governance and organization and innovation. The Dutch Government has decided to tackle the challenges I outlined before in a national programme. I was appointed as the Government Commissioner for this Delta Programme almost two years ago, and we are now well underway. The Delta Programme aims to move away from responding to disaster as we did before, towards preventing a new one.

Safety and freshwater supply, sub-programmes and delta-decisions

The Programme has two goals: providing safety against flooding and an adequate fresh water supply. It is an umbrella for ongoing implementation projects such as Room for the River and the strengthening of weak links in our coast, and focuses especially on finding the right strategies for the longer term, to avoid flooding and harm to our economy by drought. Nine sub-programmes, national and regional in different parts of our country work together towards five fundamental decisions for our water system. These decisions will be taken in 2015, after finishing current projects. They are ‘the Delta Works of the Future’.

    Should we update our safety standards given the changes in population and invested capital since we set them, and how do we organize the work to keep meeting those standards?
    What can we do to prevent that today’s construction causes unnecessary future costs or problems? We will develop a national policy framework for the development of built-up areas
    What should be our strategy to attain a sustainable and economically optimal freshwater supply and what measures are necessary?
    How can we keep the vital Rhine-Meuse delta, with major cities and the port of Rotterdam, safe against flooding and provide it with adequate fresh water supply in the long run?
    And finally, what should the future water level management of the central lake IJsselmeer look like and how is this lake linked to the safety in the area and the freshwater strategy nationwide?    

We work together in a multi-governmental process: in the sub-programmes national ministries, provinces, water boards, municipalities and businesses all work together. We do joint fact finding and we involve stakeholders and interest groups. Together we work on this programme with three values in mind: solidarity, flexibility and sustainability. The Delta Programme is anchored in law, with a Delta Act. This mandates me, as Delta Commissioner, to lead this programme. The Delta Act also institutes a Delta Fund to allocate funding to the measures we take. I hope that that during these days, you will keep in mind that Delta Management is not only about the specific solutions that you choose, but also about a governance structure that enables you to develop and implement them.

Innovations central to the Delta Programme

We work in an adaptive way: we measure the changes in our delta, but we know the exact future developments are uncertain. We work with scenario’s to see what possibilities we can expect for the future. It is the bandwidths of these scenario’s that necessitate flexibility. For example: will the sea level rise 35 cm or 85 cm by 2100. Certain ‘tipping points’ might occur in our water system sometime in the future. For example how long does our Maeslant storm surge barrier effectively protect the Rotterdam area? When does it become impossible to drain the water in lake IJsselmeer to the sea without pumping? When do our freshwater inlets become too salty to use? We can see these tipping points coming and by smart planning prevent them from becoming big problems.

We invest in knowledge, learning by doing and innovation. Being alert to innovations is vital for the Delta Programme and the Netherlands Water sector as a whole. Our public and private sector together with the knowledge institutes have joined forces to foster innovations in the Dutch Water sector. For example, we try to use nature as our ally in keeping the water out by ‘building with nature’. Another example is related to agriculture: ‘more crop per drop’, as fresh water becomes more and more a scarce resource.
We are investigating whether a ‘bubble screen’ can help us fight salt intrusion in our water ways by mixing air and water, and we are finding ways to use sensors in dikes to help us with monitoring their condition. In what we call ‘the sand engine’, we have just created a large body of sand in front of our coast: 21,5 million cubic meters of sand will replenish our coastline by natural processes such as wind and currents.
As you can see, the Netherlands has a very innovative Water sector, which has a very important role in the Delta Programme. But its role is not limited to within our borders.

International importance of Dutch water sector

Internationally, the Netherlands Water Partnership brings together authorities, public and private companies, knowledge institutes and non-governmental organizations. We are active in a diversity of international operations: from assistance in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to building a storm surge barrier in Saint Petersburg, to creating the famous Palm Island in Dubai. During this conference there will be ample opportunities to be informed about  concrete examples of our cooperation, for instance with Indonesia, with whom we work together in a Jakarta Coastal Defense Strategy project to prevent Jakarta from flooding and making it safe for the future, with involvement of the World Bank. Mr. Moerwanto  from the Indonesian Ministry of Public Works can surely tell you more about this in his speech.

The Netherlands has a lot to offer when it comes to risk assessments, spatial planning, adaptation strategies (including water safety, fresh water supply, developing resilient urban areas), and water governance.  And, very importantly we learn day by day through our partnerships with other countries. This Thursday we will hold our Second National Delta Congress, here at the International Water Week.


In short: Water is an important element for international cooperation in the eyes of the Dutch government. Our world-class water sector has the ideal home market to develop their knowledge and innovative ideas. Our Delta Programme is a governance innovation that will keep our feet dry and provide us with fresh water also in the long term. The five Dutch D's (Delta Pogramme, Delta decisions, Delta commissioner, Delta fund and Delta Act) might help you remember our approach.

I wish you a wonderful conference.