HomeFeatures/AnalysisExclusive interview with Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs

Exclusive interview with Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs

Henk_OvinkCan you provide us with some background on you and what your position as Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Netherlands entails?
As Ambassador for Water I am responsible for advocating water awareness around the world. I helped to build institutional capacity and coalitions among governments, multilateral organizations, private sector and NGOs to address the world’s stressing needs on water. We have to change the way governments, institutional partners, NGOs and businesses deliver water resilience results.

Worldwide, water is the connecting challenge, the number one global risk and the opportunity for comprehensive cultural change. By building a portfolio of water resilience innovation projects – real action and better facts on the ground – in close collaboration with the World Bank’s Water Global Practice, we can inspire the world and strengthen the global coalition on water resilience.

I represent the Dutch Cabinet on International Water Affairs and with our new International Water Ambition we look specifically at Urban Deltas, river basin and cross boundary water challenges.

The Dutch have a long tradition and experience of living with water. The collaborative strength of governments, businesses and research organizations is the added value through its comprehensive approach.

Any specific projects in the African energy and water sector that the Netherlands is involved in that you are particularly excited about?
There are a great number of projects where we work together with South African partners. Let me give you two examples:

Water governance, the way we manage our water for more safety and better quality, is critical to secure water for all. But good water governance when not historical present is tough to achieve. In The Netherlands we have almost 900 years of experience in water governance and we like to collaborate globally to help improve water governance in other countries. The Kingfisher project aims to build up a regional water governance structure through Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs). These new entities face a lot of challenges and through the Dutch – South African collaboration we aim at increasing their capacity. The CMAs work closely with the Dutch Regional Water Authorities.

The second example is a Project called Solaris. Over the past few years there has been a rapid increase in demand for sustainable biomass and bio-energy resources worldwide. Project Solaris aims to grow sustainable bio-energy resources. Scaled up across South Africa Solaris sets the stage for (local) sustainable jet fuel production. Partners are working together with small/medium size community farmers (i.e. small holder co-ops) and commercial farmers.

In order to support the community farmers, there is a key role for the local cooperative (“Loskop Cooperation”) to provide and manage inputs, funding, farming equipment and more. And again, also in this project there is a clear focus on training and on educating local farmers and field officers to ensure that knowledge of best agro practices is shared.

Africa regularly faces drought conditions while the Netherlands often has the opposite problem.
Indeed, Southern Africa currently is in the grip of an intense drought that has expanded and strengthened since the earliest stages of this agricultural season, driven by one of the strongest El Niño events of the last fifty years. I understand there has been some relief since mid-January in certain areas but the window of opportunity for successful planting of crops under rain-fed conditions is nearly closed. And this faces serious problems for the local agricultural sector.

For one thing I know, the region needs to come up with long-term solutions to manage the decrease of its water supplies.  Due to the impact of climate change we will increasingly be confronted by severe droughts.

Water demand in The Netherlands is also high and although we are situated partially below sea level and 60% of our country is flood prone, we, interestingly enough, also suffer from long periods of drought. Our economy is for over 17% dependent on sufficient water of good quality. Not only our industry and agricultural sector suffer from drought but our transportation system is at risk as well.

When water levels are seriously falling the system of inland water transport in the whole Northwestern Europe could come to a halt. So water, as seen as being at the core of the Dutch national identity can either make us or break us.

So what we need to realize is that nowadays threats and challenges can come from all (unexpected) directions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, no silver bullet. Even if the challenges were to be the same, the local context is always different,  so technology and innovations need to be adapted to meet  local demands. That is why building these coalitions for cooperation is so important.

You will address African Utility Week on “The Nexus approach, key to resilience or default complexity” – can you give us a sneak preview of your message at the event?
All current major challenges are connected and interdependent. The pressures posed on populations by floods, droughts, water pollution and the need for fresh water intertwine with the basic needs for food, energy and income. Economy and ecology, climate change, changing demographics, migration and urbanization all collide on the regional often urban scale. This is also the scale on which mankind can adapt to and mitigate for these risks! So this complexity is also a clear opportunity.

Solving the water issue calls for an inclusive and comprehensive approach, where water serves as the convening power and catalyst for innovative and sustainable development of our resilient communities. Mankind might be the only species that not only messes up this planet, but is also capable of dealing with the problems it created. And because of the interdependencies of these challenges, we will not be able to solve one of them in isolation.

Creating the right (package of) solutions therefore requires a comprehensive approach. It implies the participation of all stakeholders concerned. A call for the cross-fertilization between all sectors and fields of expertise, governments, businesses, communities, institutional and individual. In our long history of living with water we have learned that if we want to survive, we need to work together!

Anything you would like to add?
The urgency of the matter…the clock is ticking and we really have no time to waste! 2016’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Report puts the impact of water crises as the number one global risk for the next decade. Two billion people will be devastated by 2050, four billion in 2080, if we continue with our current practices.

Water is affecting 15% of the world’s GDP and 90% of the worlds (natural) disasters are water related. With 50% of the world’s aquifers – our natural groundwater storage capacity – beyond their tipping point, natural recovery has already become impossible. Over the next 30 to 50 years the costs of natural disasters due to climate change will increase from 130 billion dollars to almost 1500 billion dollars yearly.

It is through water that we feel the impact of climate change the most. Water is essential for our economy, our social and cultural wellbeing. Water quality defines our economic and societal prosperity and water risks – too much or too little – define our societies’ vulnerability. Water is key for our food and energy production. Water is an urban matter, an asset if it is managed right but a severe risk if not. Global urbanization gives us growth, prosperity, emancipation and development opportunities, but climate change, sea level rise and increasing impacts of these risks put a lot of pressure on our cities, societies and citizens, on our economy and ecology.

With the world’s urban population growing towards 75% in 2050, it is the cities, often located at risk, long rivers and in low lying river deltas, where lives and assets are at severe risk if not developed resilient.

But I am optimistic and hopeful! The power of water aligns with the power of people and their collaborative strengths. Together we have the capacity to overcome these complex problems on a local, regional and global scale if we join forces and change the way in which we operate.

This is not a default approach, this is not about responding to climate change. No, this is the new normal, the new economy our new reality. This means business and lots opportunities, for jobs, development and education. A huge and expanding market is evolving for NGOs, businesses and researchers that help us to face these challenges. Businesses that adapt early and are bold enough to develop and invest in innovative solutions are destined to lead the markets of the future. It better be a bright one!

Ashley Theron
Ashley Theron-Ord is based in Cape Town, South Africa at Clarion Events-Africa. She is the Senior Content Producer across media brands including ESI Africa, Smart Energy International, Power Engineering International and Mining Review Africa.