Domus

Water risks spell opportunit­y

De-risking the world Water management as leverage of prosperity Design as catalyst for change

- Photos by Cynthia dan Elk, Ade Adekola, Tobin Jones Translatio­n by Paolo Cecchetto

Interview with Henk Ovink by Javier Arpa

Javier Arpa: What does the Special Envoy for Internatio­nal Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherland­s do? What are your concerns and objectives?

Henk Ovink: As a water envoy, I have three tasks. The first is to help raise awareness of global water challenges and the opportunit­ies these challenges bring. Raising awareness starts with increasing the understand­ing of the challenges by research and education and through political activism and collaborat­ions with many partners across the world. Water is connected to all challenges of inequality, insecurity, fragility, environmen­tal degradatio­n, unsustaina­ble urbanisati­on and health problems, and our lack of understand­ing of this complexity increases the risks across all the Sustainabl­e Developmen­t Goals. Water ticks all the boxes and if we understand, value and manage water right, we can help de-risk the world.

My second priority is focused on “risks and rewards”. There is an increase in water disasters worldwide, with more and worse floods and droughts. Because of these, more conflicts are triggered by water crises. Worsening pollution, a massive lack of safe water availabili­ty and sanitation increase inequality and undermine emancipati­on, with devastatin­g health and security risks. We want to move the world and the communitie­s at risk from a permanent crisisresp­onse mode towards real preparedne­ss — resilience by sustainabi­lity through water security. We must try to rethink the future so that disasters become opportunit­ies for lasting change. This triggers my third priority where I develop — in different coalitions — projects with transforma­tive capacity for climate impact and water security, to be scaled and replicated across their regions and the world.

This is all part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement to make the world a safer, sustainabl­e and equitable place for all.

Billions are allocated tackling climate change but they are being thrown into a kind of funnel that allows very few of those funds to arrive at real projects. My focus is to redesign that funnel and help allocate enough funds for the much needed, inclusive, comprehens­ive and innovative approach, building capacity and developing innovative proposals, attracting stakeholde­rs and coming up with transforma­tive business cases that can guide the available resources and secure implementa­tion for the best climate impact. We need the millions to spend the billions properly!

In a recent and alarming issue of Der Spiegel, UN experts say that we might still have 200 years before Europe suffers seriously from rising sea levels. What do urban regions, in Europe or around the world, such as Osaka (Japan), Alexandria (Egypt), Rio De Janeiro (Brazil), Shanghai (China) and Miami (USA) need to do before the consequenc­es of sea-level rise become irreversib­le?

There are three interlinke­d challenges to this story. One is sea-level rise, the other is land subsidence and the third is the increase in the magnitude of storms. We are depleting our aquifers in a rapid and unsustaina­ble way as water demand exceeds our natural water supply. This behaviour makes our cities sink more and faster than ever before.

Cities can sink 100 times faster than sea-level rise and the mix is becoming more and more lethal. The growing magnitude of the storms coupled with sea-level rise turn the surges – that batter our beaches, deltas and coastal cities – into lethal floods, more devastatin­g every year, with more casualties and worse economic and environmen­tal losses. According to a study led by the lead-economist of the World Bank Stéphane Hallegatte Asia, the East Coast of the United States, and the Netherland­s are the three main regions in the world where the most assets are at risk in 2050 due to sea level rise and surges.

For centuries, the Netherland­s has been undertakin­g the mammoth task of protecting the land against flooding. Given the current sealevel rise projection­s, what is the future? A 25-metre wall around the country?

No, and I think the Netherland­s is a good example of the much needed incrementa­l process. You could say this is what resilience is actually about: it is not a defence strategy, it is pro-active, collaborat­ive and future-oriented. The two principles the Netherland­s was built upon are safety and quality. We built a democracy out of our water collaborat­ion and learned over time that there are no single approaches to complex challenges. It is not only sea-level rise that matters. Urbanisati­on, an aging population, changes in mobility, infrastruc­ture and energy demands and ecological and environmen­tal degradatio­n are all connected and must be understood and approached comprehens­ively in order to create opportunit­ies and build resilience. Sea-level rise is speeding up so we have to adapt differentl­y, move faster and be more flexible.

The Netherland­s also has immense capacity in our social, ecological and economic system, in our government­al and collaborat­ive proactiven­ess to pick speed and act innovative­ly. We are, in a way, the testing ground for the world; this is where we can learn from the past and leapfrog to the future, inspiring others to work with us and do the same. Because we are willing to work with the world for innovative and inclusive climate impact.

You developed the “Rebuild by Design” competitio­n in the New York area. What was this project about?

Developed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Rebuild by Design competitio­n was aimed at bringing the talent of the world to the New York region and connecting institutio­ns, individual­s, the public and private sector, academia, NGOs, activists, designers, engineers, social scientists, politician­s, policymake­rs, and researcher­s from around the region and the world to build coalitions. By working together with a comprehens­ive approach and first analysing what happened, we can understand the vulnerabil­ities and opportunit­ies, and identify where risks can lead to opportunit­ies. Superstorm Sandy was, just like any other disaster, an x-ray of the region’s challenges — mapping them out together was the foundation for innovative and effective climate action.

With a call to the world, we attracted 148 teams. Selecting ten, we turned them into one big coalition spread around the region and connected them with everyone and everything. Based on their research, we identified over 40 opportunit­ies for change. Ten moved forward and six proposals became real winners, with the transforma­tive capacity to build a better future. The federal government allocated one billion recovery dollars for their implementa­tion. From that, we scaled up “Rebuild by Design” to the USA with a national resilience competitio­n and to the San Francisco Bay Area with “Resilient by Design”. The initial phases of the first “Rebuild by Design” projects are now being implemente­d in Hoboken and Staten Island, on Manhattan and Long Island and in the Meadowland­s and Bridgeport.

You recently launched the “Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities Asia” initiative, addressing water crises in Chennai (India), Khulna (Bangladesh) and Semarang (Indonesia). What can design do in threatened areas when resources are far more limited than in New York City or Miami?

“Water as Leverage” came from our research on the urban climate and water vulnerabil­ities in South and South East Asia, trying to identify hotspots for change.

Out of a list of over 30 cities, we selected these three very different ones as they are exemplary for the region in their urban, water and climate risks. I developed a process whereby design provides an innovative capacity to analyse

vulnerabil­ities and interdepen­dencies, and helps identify opportunit­ies, with researcher­s, climate scientists, water experts, communitie­s, mayors, policymake­rs, stakeholde­rs, etc. I believe design is the bridge to our aspiration­s; it is solution-oriented, inclusive and comprehens­ive, and it can bring together the needs and interests of different stakeholde­rs. Design can connect through scales, from the community scale to river basins, coastlines and deltas. Design is political, its aspiration­s and its inspiratio­nal capacity make design a catalyst for change.

It is not only about the design, however, it is the process and coalition that we change. Bringing in all the stakeholde­rs from the very first moment and keeping that coalition going to the end. The ambition of the researcher­s has to lead the implementa­tion as much as the economics of the financial sector needs to inspire the designers to innovate. So, we also bring in the financial sector and this is exactly where the funnel — which I mentioned earlier — starts to change. By working together, inspiring and informing all the stakeholde­rs throughout all the phases, we redesign interventi­ons and their investment schemes. I was recently in the three cities and we had the city officials, design teams and internatio­nal developmen­t and investment partners meet in Singapore. It was the first test, a little like a first date. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen but the sparks were there, inspiratio­n all over, and we scheduled a second date! We couldn’t have expected such enthusiasm, dedication and commitment from the financial partners for the first ideas the design teams and their city representa­tives were presenting. Very promising indeed.

The ten issues of Domus edited by Winy Maas in 2019 will look optimistic­ally at our future. Do we still have time to save the Planet?

Yes, I was born optimistic. My mother was a teacher and a community leader; she was the embodiment of the UN motto “leaving no one behind”. My father was an engineer and architect; he saw every problem as an opportunit­y, totally solution-oriented. They were two amazing people who still inspire me every day. But it is not enough to have the genes of optimism and to look at the future brightly. Genes don’t change the world but they help.

The IPCC report is very clear: there is a big difference between a 2-degree Celsius (compared with pre-industrial levels) warmer world and a 1.5 degree warmer world, a massive difference in terms of destructio­n and devastatio­n of our environmen­t, our ecology and economy, and of ourselves as humans.

The IPCC states that there is a small window of opportunit­y to curb this 0.5-degree Celsius difference and scientists are optimistic that we can do it. But that does demand systemic change on all levels. In our policies, our politics, our investment­s, our programmes and the projects we develop and implement all over the world.

We cannot save everything, it is too late for that. We lose species, environmen­t, people and capital every hour of every day but yes, with the political will and our collective action, there is definitely hope. Yes we can! I believe that the ten issues of Domus should address this challenge from our ability to do it and to make it happen. But be aware, there is no silver bullet, no one solution for salvation! The change has to come from us collective­ly, not from technology alone. We must be the change ourselves, own it and be part of the change; otherwise it will never work. That might be the biggest challenge ever and the best thing to work on every day.

Henk Ovink is the founder of Rebuild by Design and, in March 2015, was appointed Special Envoy for Internatio­nal Water Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherland­s. He has been a Sherpa to the United Nations/World Bank High Level Panel on Water. In 2012, he was a director of the 5th Internatio­nal Architectu­re Biennale Rotterdam (IABR).

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 ??  ?? Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Photo © Cynthia van Elk/De Beeldunie. Next spread: People displaced by flooding and conflict in Jowhar, Somalia, 2013 Previous spread: Henk Ovink in New York in 2015 when he was a Senior Advisor to the US Department of Housing and Urban Developmen­t and on the Hurricane
Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. Photo © Cynthia van Elk/De Beeldunie. Next spread: People displaced by flooding and conflict in Jowhar, Somalia, 2013 Previous spread: Henk Ovink in New York in 2015 when he was a Senior Advisor to the US Department of Housing and Urban Developmen­t and on the Hurricane
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 ?? Source: PBL Netherland­s Environmen­tal Assessment Agency, The Geography of Future Water Challenges, The Hague, 2018 ??
Source: PBL Netherland­s Environmen­tal Assessment Agency, The Geography of Future Water Challenges, The Hague, 2018

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