Speech by Government Commissioner Mr. Wim Kuijken at the World Water Week in Singapore

Speech by Government Commissioner for the Delta Programme in the Netherlands, Mr. Wim Kuijken, at the River Basin and Delta Management Workshop of the World Water Week in Singapore on Monday 28 June, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking our hosts for the wonderful reception we have been given here in Singapore, an impressive country with which the Netherlands has strong ties.  

Singapore and the Netherlands both benefit from their strategic locations on the coast, but such locations also face challenges that are related to changes in sea level and the climate, our freshwater supply and water management. We share these challenges with coastal regions and deltas across the globe. In 2025 over half the world population will be living in cities in such coastal regions, cities with open ports and where the influence of water is profound.

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, as is exemplified by the cooperation between Dutch and foreign partners. 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, especially, but not exclusively, in countries with a comparable delta related geography.

[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. 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!

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, in the last century, we built the famous Delta Works – to keep the Netherlands safe from the water. So, the Netherlands 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. Drier summers may under extreme circumstances lead to fresh water shortages and low water levels may impede inland river traffic, thus endangering our position as the leading gateway to Europe. Extremely high water levels in winter on the other hand may lead to increased risk of flooding. In 1993 and 1995 river levels reached a critical threshold. It is not the shortage of water, but its uneven distribution throughout the year that may cause problems if we do not take countermeasures.

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.

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 in the future from the rising waters of both the sea and the river? We are examining three alternatives to the present situation. At present, a huge moveable barrier closes off the open connection between the port and the North Sea during an extreme storm surge. In the future the incidence of closing this barrier will increase with the rise of the sea level. At the same time, as I indicated, chances of high river discharges will also increase. And so it will become more likely that a storm surge coincides with extreme river discharges. If under such circumstances the barrier is closed, river water cannot flow out. It will then inundate the urban area we are trying to protect by closing the barrier in the first place. The first alternative to this situation consists of closing off both the waterways at the seaside and the riverside, with several moveable barriers. The combined probability of failure for the total system of barriers must be acceptable and river water needs to be rerouted to the southwestern delta. The second alternative would be to close off the seaside and riverside with permanent barriers. A system of locks would be needed to enable navigation in and out of the port and again river water would have to be rerouted. The third alternative would be a completely open system, without barriers, in which the urban areas would need to be protected by high dikes. All these alternatives have consequences for the port, for urban development, for the natural environment, or for all three.  A careful consideration of all pros and cons is needed.

The freshwater supply for the area can also become a concern in the future. If the sea level rises, more saltwater will penetrate via the river estuaries during dry periods. We are examining how we can use water-storage basins, like our central lake IJsselmeer or basins of the southwestern delta area, to effectively regulate our freshwater supply. This is of major importance to counter the threat of salinisation of our agricultural area, which is both of great economic importance and especially vulnerable in the west of our country. Consideration of cultural heritage and nature aspects also plays an important role here. The issue of a dependable water supply will be familiar to many of you.

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.

That is why 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.

The Delta Programme, for which I am responsible, sets out what we must have accomplished by about 2050 in order 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.

The task of the government commissioner for the delta programme is unique and innovative. This functionary advises a ministerial steering committee, lead by the Prime Minister, both actively and passively, and writes a yearly planning and a yearly progress report on the Delta Programme, for which he has to be informed by all parties, including regional government. The advice given by the commissioner, together with the reaction to it by the cabinet, will be judged by parliament. 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 (which covers for instance the issue relating to the protection of the Rotterdam area I mentioned before), and South-West Delta). The generic programmes cover fresh water supply, safety standards, 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 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.  

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 remain a pleasant and attractive country to live in. It must not become a watertight bunker.  

For our programme we actively seek support in society. This programme is not just a programme from the central government. It is a national programme. I work together with ministries, provinces, municipalities and water boards. I involve citizens and advocacy groups. Basic principles are multi-level governance and joint fact-finding. In this respect I would also like to mention cooperation between knowledge institutes and companies. The Dutch success in building and maintaining water technologies can be attributed to fruitful partnerships in networks. The Netherlands Water Partnership is such a network that brings together the private sector, government, knowledge institutes 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, to enhance collaboration, and with a focus on the Asian region. Deltares, a Dutch delta technology knowledge institute is also important for my programme and has long been cooperating with Singaporean institutes like the National University of Singapore and the PUB in the Singapore Delft Water Alliance.

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 look for the optimal solution, in which safety is leading, but in which other issues are not lost out of sight.

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, rigid sea walls, and we use natural processes at the coastline wherever possible. I would like to illustrate this with an example.

Here you see an artist impression of a project that will be launched coming December: the sand engine. We add large amounts of sand to our coast annually, to protect our coastline. In the future we will increase that amount, so the sandy part of our coast will grow in unison with the rising sea level. But the sudden addition of large amounts of sand disturbs the natural balance and the ecosystem. That is why we have chosen to experiment with a different solution, the addition of a large amount of sand in only one place in front of the coast, from where natural processes like wind erosion and water movement will distribute it along the beaches. In this way the same safety can be attained, but without the ecological disturbance.

And inland we give rivers more room, instead of building higher dikes; creating additional channels and water retention areas also serves to create water rich nature. Also, through careful spatial planning we give water a prominent place in our cities, for storage or 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. 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.