Delta Commissioner’s speech at the Big Improvement Day

In two week’s time, on 1 February, I will be laying a wreath at the National Monument in Zeeland. We will be remembering the 1800 victims of the last catastrophic flood that took place 60 years ago.

It is the place where I started my work as Delta Commissioner three years ago. It was a conscious decision to begin my work there, because for me, it is the place that links the past, the present and the future. Symbolic for my work.

I studied Economics near here at the VU University Amsterdam. I began working as a public servant after I graduated. Much to my family’s surprise because no one was a public servant. I had full confidence in my decision, and I’m still here, after over 33 years. I love being occupied with complicated social issues, helping to prepare sound decisions. The economist in me is always busy thinking: how can we achieve the highest social return on each euro that we as the government spend or invest? What incentives can we provide? All for the greater good.

I apply everything I have learned in my various government positions to the work I have now been doing for almost three years: preventing another catastrophic flood.

Our location as the gateway to Europe makes us prosperous but we are also threatened by the rivers and the sea. We live with water and protect ourselves from it. Tension abounds.

In this country, parts of which have been reclaimed from water, we have experienced many disasters or near disasters in the past. Time and again the response is immediate and efficient. You can also see this in the rest of the world: cleaning up the mess, funds for better protection. For example, in New Orleans after Katrina in 2005.

In our country, over the past 100 years: 1916  the Closure Dike (Afsluitdijk), 1953  the Delta Works, 1995  the Room for the River programme. I am curious about what will happen in New York after Sandy.

Our greatest task now is to take timely and appropriate action and to be better prepared. After all, research over a longer period of time has demonstrated that temperatures and sea levels are rising, while the ground surface is gradually sinking: the gap is widening. And that means the chances of a new disaster occurring are rising too. After all, almost sixty per cent of our country is vulnerable to flooding. I don’t want to be an alarmist… but every fifty years there has been another disaster (silence).

Knowing that, and realising that many more people are living in our country today than there were sixty years ago, that the economic value has increased significantly, once again we have to ask ourselves the question of whether we need to strengthen our defences. If it goes wrong, if the rivers are overflowing while the sea is penetrating inland in stormy weather, or our sea barriers are closed and river water cannot be discharged, then the key region of our country, the Randstad conurbation, will be in danger. And I can assure you that if this occurs, we will be out of the running for decades.

I was appointed to ensure this does not happen.

The reverse also applies: if the weather becomes drier and little water is fed into the rivers, our water supply has to be adjusted so that our utilities companies, agriculture, the process industry at our ports can continue to function. Over the past decades we have frequently experienced dry periods and sometimes periods of drought in the spring and summer. It appears that extreme weather conditions are occurring more often.

In our country, we have acquired a great deal of experience in responding to flooding. But we have no experience in preventing such disasters. That is new for us. But we will do it. We are safe, but at the same time, we are vulnerable. We have to find a solution to our vulnerability. The question is therefore: how can we best prepare ourselves for an uncertain future, whose direction we know? How do you do this when no one feels the threat of an impending disaster?

In 2010, I came up with the idea that at least three things are needed for this:

1. Gathering knowledge about the future and coming up with appropriate measures.
We are working with delta scenarios, possible future scenarios for our country, based on climate and economics. They both have an impact on our country as well as an effect on each other. We are not making a choice, but rather taking all alternatives into account. The measures we propose must be appropriate responses in all possible scenarios. Robust is the term for this. Our country, this delta must be able to cope better with the blows nature delivers. It must be more flexible.

2. Finding solutions that go further than only raising the height of our dikes.
We must be innovative. We are testing this by using IT to monitor dikes (the IJkdijk) and by building with nature. We are also doing this in the Sand Engine project along the coast at Hoek van Holland. Laying an enormous amount of sand at one spot along the coast so that over the next ten years it will be spread naturally by the wind and currents and provide protection for the entire southern coast of the Netherlands.
We are also doing this by regarding our dikes not just as flood defences, but by providing them with other functions as well. The dike as part of the town, like in Scheveningen, where the primary flood defence is incorporated in the new boulevard. A beautiful design. We don’t need to take up a stance behind our dikes.

The new generation Delta Works will look very different to what we have seen up until now. The added advantage is that such innovations not only help us, but they help the Dutch business community too. They showcase our Water Top Sector for the world.

The third point is possibly the most difficult and, at the same time, the most innovative: the approach, the governance of our work on the delta. A different way of organising and working that is far more in keeping with the times we live in.
Whereas after a disaster there is a centralised response that is directive in nature, we have to work differently when preventing disasters. We need to have common goals and values and we must work in a decentralised and collective way.

A great many parties are engaged in activities related to spatial planning and water. Water is essential to our existence. Authorities and users. Lobbying organisations and companies. Everyone realises that high stakes are involved. Everyone recognises our vulnerability, but no one is able to tackle the problem on his own. If we work on the Meuse, it has an effect on the situation in the Rhine Estuary. The River IJssel fills Lake Ijssel. The interests of the horticulture sector are not the same as those of nature conservationists. Both need fresh water, especially if our delta becomes more silted up or sometimes drier.

We are good at constructing polders, they have made us who we are via the water authorities. But polders are frequently silting up. I am trying to prevent this. Unifying public support and public action.
We work as a national programme. Friesland knows what’s happening in Zeeland, and vice versa. Farmers are in dialogue with nature conservation organisations, water authorities with ports. By participating from the outset, everyone can link up their own plans. This makes everything less expensive.

Since 2010, we have been facing the situation in our delta together, stakeholders and authorities. Each looking beyond their own interests but each with their own responsibility.

Together we are gathering the facts, coming up with possible solutions together, for example, how can you separate saltwater and fresh water in the Nieuwe Waterweg or how can Lake IJssel discharge its water if the sea level rises and how can it retain its water in the event of drought? This year we are entering the phase of coming up with the most promising measures for the future and then deciding on preferences together.

Important decisions are on the agenda for 2014. These will be made by politicians. I consider it part of my job to prepare these crucial Delta Decisions in such a way that no one can avoid them.

An aid in this respect is the legislation that has been adopted: the Delta Act. This Act states that every year a Delta Programme must be presented on Prinsjesdag (the state opening of parliament) containing concrete proposals for the near and more distant future. The focus is on the years up to 2050 and then to 2100. The Act also states that money is to be available in the Delta Fund, some 1 billion euros each year. This is actually a very modest sum, amounting to less than 0.5% of our national income. The Delta Act states that every year the Delta Commissioner must write the proposal for the Delta Programme. An update every year.

All of this helps the Delta Programme to test a new kind of authority; one that stands above individual interests because it is about the continued existence of our country. The delta community is growing.

And that brings me back to the economist in me. We will be taking economically responsible decisions and measures. Higher benefits than costs.

And knowing that cleaning up after a disaster is seven times more expensive than investing in disaster prevention, you can understand that every single euro we invest now pays enormous dividends in terms of prevented losses. And I haven’t even mentioned the disruption and human suffering that can be prevented.