Speech Delta Commissioner at FIEC2013 congres

Ladies and gentlemen, Water can be our ally or our enemy, depending on our ability to deal with it. This is true in general, as brought home dramatically by the events in Central Europe this week, and it is also very true for the Netherlands. In the Netherlands we have organized our water safety and security in a novel way through a special program, the Delta Programme. It is characterized by multilevel governance, and the active participation of the private sector and advocacy groups are essential to it.

Ladies and gentlemen, Climate Change is something we cannot deny. We measure it. And it influences many aspects of our economies. Above all it has effect on our water safety and our water supply. The Delta Programme is part of the response of the Netherlands to the challenge of Climate Change. But the need to adapt to Climate Change concerns us all. For the construction industry climate change is also an opportunity. You shape our environment and clearly any solution that involves physical infrastructure has to involve you.

As you are all aware, the European Commission adopted an adaptation strategy mid April. It urges member states to develop national adaptation strategies. There it is, the development of adaptation strategy, right at our doorstep.
It will be clear that the construction industry must play an important role in the realization of any adaptation plan for the physical environment. But in my view the industry should play an even bigger part. It should use its innovative powers and knowhow to help shape the strategies, to be right there at the drawing board, to act instead of react. That’s my message today. Let me frame the Dutch issue in this respect.

The Netherlands is the Delta of a number of large rivers, the Rhine, the Meuse, the Scheldt and the Ems. Almost 60% of the country is floodable, either from sea or river water. Dealing with water safety is a matter of national survival to us. Our strategic location in this delta, between the seas of North-western Europe and the main rivers connected to the European hinterland, has brought us prosperity. It also handed us our fair share of disasters.

In 1916 large parts of the north of our country were flooded. As a result we closed off the Zuiderzee with an icon of hydraulic engineering, the Afsluitdijk, to form Lake IJssel in 1933. Coming years the dike will be reinforced. In 1953 our last major flood happened. Large stretches of the south-west of the Netherlands were flooded and almost 2000 people drowned. We responded with an ambitious and visionary Delta Plan and the famous Delta works, closing off a large part of the estuary with, again, ingenious infrastructural works.

Then in 1993 and 1995 the threat came from a different direction. Melting snow and intense rainfall in the catchment areas of the Rhine and the Meuse caused river levels to swell to record heights. The dykes did not breach, but it was touch and go. As a security measure we had to evacuate 250,000 people from deep lying areas. This time the response was different. A Program called Room for the River was started and is still under construction.

Instead of just raising the dykes along the rivers, instead of only relying on infrastructural measures, spatial measures were employed where possible. We widened the floodplains, removed obstacles to allow the water to flow more freely. With these programs and investments we have our water safety well in hand. But the work on our delta is never finished.

First, the invested capital and the number of people living behind our dykes and dams have increased significantly since we established our standards in the sixties of the last century. With more to protect, we need to rethink the level of protection. Second, we now know that our climate is changing. Over the last century the sea level rose by 20 cm. The question now is whether that change will accelerate this century.

That is why we work with different scenarios, with a range of 35-85 cm/century. The weather is becoming less predictable. This leads to increased erosion of our coast. We expect an increase in the frequency and intensity of both wetter and dryer periods, [click] causing changes in the discharges of our rivers, in turn leading to questions regarding water safety and the fresh water supply needed to support our main economic functions. Our soil is subsiding. We face increased salt intrusion and stronger rainfall. And we build and rebuild our physical environment.

In 2005 Katrina hit New Orleans, and as a result in 2007 the Dutch government installed a State Commission to find out whether it would be possible to keep on living safe and prosperous lives in the Dutch delta in the centuries to come. In 2008 the commission published its findings. The answer was, yes, we can. However, it also pointed out that action was needed. Not in response to a disaster, as is common practice, but to prevent one from occurring. After all, in a changing world our present day strategies might not be sufficient to cope with future developments. The Cabinet embraced the report. It decided to organise a long-term and comprehensive program, the Delta Program, with two goals: safe now and in the future and a sufficient water supply also when it gets dryer.

For continuity, a special functionary was appointed: a government commissioner, charged with ensuring progress and coherence and the publication of a yearly program report as proposal to the government and parliament. A special fund was established of over 1 billion euro per year, to pay for the needed measures to take. These ingredients, two national goals, a Delta Program, the Delta commissioner and the Delta fund, were laid down in a special law, the Delta Act, which came into force on January 1, 2012. The yearly proposal from the commissioner contains concrete measures for the next 6 to 12 years, with the focus on 2050-2100. While on the one hand continuously working on the upkeep of our safety, we are on the other hand preparing 5 structuring and strategic choices for the future of our delta.

The start of a new generation of delta works in the coming 20-30 years. These are the so-called delta decisions, political decisions to be taken next year. There are three national ones, concerned with national issues. The first delta decision concerns an adjustment of the safety standards for our dykes and dams, based on a cost benefit analysis and the projected casualties and economic losses in case of dyke breach. The second delta decision [click] looks at a guideline or prescription for spatial measures and the way we build, with two objectives. We identify ways to use our spatial planning to minimize the consequences of dyke breach and protect vital functions. And on the other hand we look for ways to deal with the negative effects of climate change on our cities, like heat stress, or excessive rainfall. The third delta decision concerns a strategy for fresh water. How to distribute our fresh water effectively and efficiently for our main economic functions, like our agriculture, our process industry and energy plants in times of drought, to keep our economy healthy and vibrant.

The two remaining delta decisions formulate answers to two regional issues with national impact. The way we defend the open connection between the port of Rotterdam and the sea, both in view of water safety and salt intrusion, and the level of Lake IJssel in relation to our fresh water supply and water safety.

In the Delta Programme, ministries, provinces, municipalities and water boards work closely together in a program structure to find the right solutions. They actively solicit input from knowledge institutes, the private sector, NGO’s. The involvement of all stakeholders is essential to reach optimal solutions. Close cooperation within the Golden Triangle, that is, between government, knowledge institutes and, importantly, the private sector, is essential to unlock the vast innovative potential needed.

Climate Change, ladies and gentlemen, is real. But although the direction of change is clear, its magnitude and speed are not. That is why we developed the concept of adaptive delta management. We look for solutions that maintain as much systemic flexibility as possible and will be effective in all our scenarios, our possible futures. Measures like beach nourishment, along our coast, where we can add a little more sand, or a little less, depending on the need. We give more room to river water, returning a flexibility to the flood plains that we had taken away over the years. In this way we gain time until we know more about the systemic changes we are facing, avoiding both overinvestment and underinvestment.

The spatial domain in the Netherlands is intensively used. This is why in the Delta Program we need to combine measures for water safety and water security with other spatial ambitions, why we look for multifunctional use of infrastructure. The recently finished boulevard in The Hague is a prime example. The sea dyke has been cleverly incorporated inside an elegant design for the boulevard, combining safety with recreation and artistic appeal. In other places we look for ways to incorporate other functions, like an underground car park, in dykes. The Hafencity area of Hamburg [slide], in Germany, is another great example. There too water safety is an integral part of the buildings developed. In the Rotterdam area this can also be a solution in the future. Such ideas rely heavily on the innovative power of the private sector. Which underlines the need for early involvement of that sector in the development of adaptation strategies, something we realize in my program.

An other example from the Netherlands is the consortium Ecoshape, in which knowledge institutes, private sector parties, with partial government funding, work together on the development of the concept of Building with Nature, in which natural processes are used to combine ecological goals with water safety, water security and water quality objectives. It helps to create much needed safety, and an attractive environment, while saving cost and creating flexibility. Another way in which the private sector can help is in the development of public private partnership-constructions, of business cases that create more affordable solutions.

The challenges the Netherlands faces are not unique. Between 1998 and 2009, Europe suffered over 213 major damaging floods, Floods that caused more than 1100 deaths, the displacement of half a million people and at least €52 billion in insured economic losses. Fresh in our memory are the floods caused by Xynthia in France in 2010 or the 2012 flooding in Great Britain and Ireland. The ever present danger of flooding is vividly illustrated by the events of the last weeks. Excessive rainfall in Central Europe caused flooding in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The city of Passau experienced the highest water level in 500 years. Not only resulting in massive damage, but sadly also in the loss of lives.

Like in the Netherlands, countries will have to act to provide a sufficient level of water safety to their citizens. And the development of adaptation strategies will benefit greatly from innovation and integrated solutions. The innovative power of the construction sector is essential to help develop such solutions. The early involvement of the private sector in the formulation of strategies does not only help, it is crucial. We practice it in our program. In my view, this is the way forward.

I am convinced that national adaptation strategies will benefit greatly from the knowhow and expertise you have to offer. Governments need you to convert the challenge of climate change in an opportunity for innovation and a more attractive physical environment. You need a clever and predictable government to set the direction. In that respect we have to work together and we have to work hard. In economic tough times, maybe a interesting challenge.
Thank you for your attention.