Water risks spell opportunity
De-risking the world Water management as leverage of prosperity Design as catalyst for change
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).