Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN, United States


Statement by

H.E. Ms. Melanie Schultz van Haegen

Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment

of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

UN Special Thematic Session on Water and Disasters

New York, 6 March 2013


Your Royal Highnesses,

Your Excellency Mr Secretary-General,

Your Excellencies,

ladies and gentlemen,

 We have just heard some compelling stories from different countries on different continents. And first-hand accounts of recent disasters. We all remember the tragic images of hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis. I am unable to share any such stories with you today. Because the last major water-related disaster in the Netherlands happened six decades ago, in 1953. But I can share a different experience with you: our experience of dealing with the risk of disaster.

Sixty years ago, in 1953, much of the southwestern Netherlands was flooded as severe storms raged on the North Sea. More than 1,800 people died. Until now, that disaster has been the last in a series of great floods that have hit our country over the centuries. Although high water levels in our rivers did almost lead to severe flooding in the 1990s. Those calamities taught us valuable lessons and have given us centuries of experience in dealing with water.

Almost one-third of our country lies below sea level. Almost two-thirds of the country is vulnerable to flooding. These are the areas where most of our people live. And where most of our GDP is generated.

These facts make flood safety an everyday topic in the Netherlands. But this doesn’t always make it as urgent an issue as you might expect. Because after decades of investing heavily in flood safety, the Dutch are often too quick to conclude that we are now safe forever. That, of course, is not true. Because there is no such thing as a world without risk. As we know, the only constant factor in our world is change.

I see three major changes that are affecting how we deal with water.

First, demographic change. Cities are growing rapidly, worldwide. Second, increased knowledge and resources. Innovation and technology are expanding our scope for action.

And third, climate change. We are seeing more and more extreme weather: more droughts in some areas, more rainfall in others.

Now that we know this, what can we do? We believe that the most crucial thing to do is anticipate what’s ahead. Of course we can’t prevent every flood. But we can be prepared for worst-case scenarios. We can provide our citizens with adequate information. We can make sure that we have emergency plans ready and up-to-date. And we can make sure we know when, how and where to evacuate people. This enables us to combine prevention with other measures: early warning, preparedness, disaster response and evacuation.

In this way we can minimise the consequences of water-related disaster. We can reduce the physical impact of floods and drought. And ensure fewer human casualties. Today I would like to highlight three valuable flood safety lessons from the Netherlands. Not as a model to copy blindly. But rather, we hope, as a source of inspiration.

First: what we’ve learned about how to practically anticipate.

Second: what we’ve learned about how to organise governance.

And third: what we’ve learned about the role citizens, companies and engineers can play.

First, the practical lessons.

After the floods in 1953, our government carried out a large-scale Delta Plan. Major public works were built to close off sea inlets. By now, we can proudly say that we have one of the safest deltas in the world. But we cannot rest on our laurels. Because the world is changing constantly. Our first Delta Plan was based on risk levels last updated in the 1960s. A lot has happened in the meantime. Our economic capital has increased enormously. And we now know that climate change will raise sea levels. And change storm and rainfall patterns.

Hurricane Katrina was an eye-opener in this respect. It showed that the perfect storm can hit us anytime. So three years ago, we launched a new Delta Programme. It takes an active approach to preparing our nation for the impact of climate change. We don’t know exactly what to expect. But we know that we’ll need to cope with rising sea levels, more intense rainfall and longer periods of drought. So we’ve developed an adaptive approach to flood safety and fresh water supply. Of course many deltas in the world are facing similar problems. Dutch companies are active on this issue all over the world. For example in in Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Mozambique. We are lucky to be working with so many other countries. Not only to share our knowledge. But also to learn from others.

Second, what have we learned about governance?

To begin with, flood management does not start with levees, dykes or dams. It starts with people who cooperate and set up a proper organisation. To illustrate this, let me take you back more than seven hundred years. Long before there was a Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Dutch started organising themselves around independent water boards. The first one was founded in 1255. Our independent water boards function effectively to this day. Even so, responsibilities and tasks related to water are often scattered over many different government agencies. Here again, proper cooperation and coordination are the first necessity in effectively reducing the number of water-related disasters. The best way to organise this coordination will be different for every country. The Dutch government has appointed a special Delta Commissioner for the new Delta Programme. He has sole responsibility for connecting the various levels of government. It is his job to keep the process up to speed and everybody on the same page. To guarantee this, the Delta Programme is part of a special Delta Act and financed through a special Delta Fund.

In managing such projects, the involvement of regional and local governments is critical. Several Dutch flood safety projects are run by a municipality, province or water authority. Even if the national government covers most of the costs. We have learned that this can be a highly successful way of organising the work. Independent evaluations show that most of the projects are on schedule and will stay within budget. This taught us that a bottom-up approach is sometimes the best way to enhance flood safety.

Third, I would like to address the role of citizens and companies in enhancing safety.

Of course, stakeholder participation can be seen as an inconvenient source of delay.

But we have learned that the earlier we involve citizens and companies in our plans, the more quickly we are able to implement, operate and maintain our flood works.

An excellent example of this made its way into the New York Times a mere three weeks ago. It’s the story of Nol Hooijmaijers. He is a Dutch farmer who was told to give up his farm, because the area had been designated as a spillway for a nearby river. However, he did not want to move. In direct talks with local and national government, he came up with an excellent alternative. Elevating part of the area allowed him to keep his farm where it was. When the nearby river overflows, Mr Hooijmaijers and his family are safe on their elevated farm. This kind of participation is only part of the solution, however. Good governance is impossible without professionals. I firmly believe that we have to rely more on public-private partnerships. They help us make better use of the private sector’s skills and experiences. And we create scope for private financing.

Most importantly, I believe that we can never achieve an adequate level of safety without a proper plan and a strategy for the future. In the Netherlands we have learned that planning should integrate water with other priorities. Because we can never keep our feet dry by focusing on water alone. It always has to be part of a bigger picture. Including economic development, nature conservation and spatial planning. In fact, flood safety begins with spatial planning.

This principle is vital in enabling us to combine the different functions of water in a single area. Like irrigation, water supply and hydropower. But also to combine flood safety with urban development. This does not mean that planning has to solve every detailed problem.

Because that is impossible. But we can take uncertainties into account by using different scenarios for economic development and climate change. Flexibility must be our key asset.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Anticipating what’s ahead is the main way of reducing disaster risks. If we don’t look forward, we can’t adapt to changing circumstances. Of course, we cannot look forward without cooperation. Among people, companies and governments. As you know, 2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation. In two weeks’ time the Netherlands will be proud to host World Water Day. Cooperation will of course be the main theme of this important event. An event that is in the good hands of an excellent host: His Royal Highness, the Prince of Orange.

So I hope to see you all there.

And I offer you our full cooperation in making our world safer.

Thank you.