Speech by the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, Melanie Schultz van Haegen, at the EIP Water Conference, Leeuwarden,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome to the Netherlands. I’m delighted to see so many experts from so many disciplines and so many countries here today. Let me tell you why I think this is so important.

The Netherlands is widely known as a country that lives with water. It’s a reputation I’m proud of – certainly when, after a water-related disaster somewhere else in the world, people say ‘Bring in the Dutch’.

But of course we need much more than Dutch know-how alone!
People around the world increasingly face too much, too little or too polluted water. The World Economic Forum sees water crises as the greatest global risk. To address it, we need a worldwide partnership, a united waterfront. ‘Bring in the Dutch’ is far from enough!

So I say, ‘Bring in the world! Bring in the scientists; the academics; the engineers! Bring in the water experts from every discipline and every country!’

I’d like to congratulate the city of Leeuwarden and Wetsus water institute on bringing the EIP Water Conference to the Netherlands this year. You clearly have a very good network.
Of course, I’m looking at this conference through European eyes. The Netherlands holds the EU Presidency for the first six months of this year. It’s a serious responsibility. But also an opportunity to put EU water policy higher on the agenda and, where possible, make it more effective and more innovative.

We share this goal with our trio presidency partners, Slovakia and Malta.
I’ll come back to this later. First, I want to tell you how I became personally involved in the water challenge.

I can remember exactly where and when that was.

It was in Banda Aceh, on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The city was decimated by a tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. I visited Indonesia shortly after the disaster and I will never forget the devastation I saw there. A quarter of the population were dead. I still remember a radio ship that the ocean had dumped on top of a house. The ship had been out at sea, the house was in the middle of the city.

These images have always stayed with me. They confronted me not only with water’s destructive power. But also with the silent disaster in the direct aftermath: an immediate shortage of clean drinking water, so that many people died from the consequences of diarrhoea.  

I have become more deeply conscious of this issue since then. I have seen the sheer power of water, and the threats posed by polluted water, in the vulnerable Mekong Delta in Vietnam and the Irrawaddy Delta in Myanmar. In New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and in New York after Hurricane Sandy.

Anyone who has seen, heard and smelled the ruin and destruction caused by water knows that neither flood safety nor water quality can be taken for granted. We need answers that combine delta technology and water technology.

Of course we need strong flood defences. But it’s not enough. Bright Spark – a company from Joure, here in Friesland – came up with a solution to the drinking water shortages immediately after the tsunami. A mobile, zero-chemical water purification system. A crucial innovation. Because every year, diarrhoea kills five million children.

I’ve made two resolutions.
For hundreds of years the Netherlands has fought a battle with water. This has given us a wealth of knowledge and expertise from which other countries can benefit.

So my first intention is to keep all that knowledge on safety and water quality up to date by linking experts here with experts from around the world. And to actively communicate this knowledge to the rest of the world.  

And second, it’s vital that we act not only in the aftermath of disasters, but also – and more importantly – that we act to prevent them from happening. Prepare rather than repair. I’m resolved to put this notion even higher on the international agenda.

I’m working hard to achieve this in the EU, the OECD and the World Bank, and within the UN framework as vice-chair of the High-Level Experts and Leaders Panel on Water and Disasters.
Fortunately, the Paris climate agreement shows that political attention for preparation and adaptation is growing.

Every country has to prepare for the future. And the Netherlands is doing just that.
I don’t know how well you know my country, so I’d like to ask you a question. How many of you arrived at Schiphol airport?

If you did, your plane landed on the bed of a reclaimed lake. Five metres below sea-level.
And how many of you drank water from the tap at Schiphol?

It’s the best non-chlorinated drinking water in the world. And a miracle of technology.
Because we can’t take supplies of fresh water for granted. This might sound strange in a wet country like the Netherlands. But if we did nothing, half of the country would be without fresh drinking water.

Because to our west is the salty North Sea. And from the east flow the great European rivers, laden with sediment. The Netherlands is Europe’s drain.
In these circumstances and with so many new substances and medicine residues in our surface water, it’s a continual challenge for Dutch water treatment engineers to make the best drinking water.

This shows why it’s crucial for us to work closely together with other European countries, to try new technologies, to develop new insights and move forward step by step. Let me give you some examples:

  • Nereda biological wastewater treatment technology. The new standard in its kind, marketed all over the world. It purifies water using the unique features of aerobic granular biomass.The product of a twenty-year partnership between universities, water authorities and an engineering company. Uses fewer chemicals, is more energy efficient and takes up less space, making it an attractive option for urban areas.
  • Another example is the Afsluitdijk, the Barrier Dam. Some of you have been there. It’s a magical place, where we want to combine water and innovation. And the only place in the world where an osmotic power plant generates blue energy – by mixing salt water and fresh water. This brand-new technology was developed right here in Leeuwarden, in the Wetsus laboratory.
  • A very different example is the Marker Wadden project, south of the IJsselmeer. This year, we’ll start constructing new small islands in Markermeer lake to reduce wave run-up, so that we’ll need fewer heavy-duty dykes. The lake was closed off from the IJsselmeer in the mid-twentieth century. The islands will give it a much-needed ecological boost. Interaction with local residents played a major part in developing the plans. So this project is more about governmental innovation than about technology.

The examples are not what matter to me; it’s the ideas behind them.
It’s important that the Netherlands should become a testing ground for the rest of the world.
Solutions that we come up with here – with expertise from abroad – help the Netherlands as well as other countries. Whether we’re talking about water purification, wastewater treatment or flood safety.

That’s why I advocate international cooperation. Not only between government authorities, but also between companies and scientists.

Over the past few years I’ve visited many water projects – in Indonesia, Vietnam, Colombia and Bangladesh – and I’m always accompanied by representatives from the private sector and knowledge institutions. Because they have the practical solutions.
Cooperation within Europe also brings significant added value. But I’m convinced the EU can and must be more innovative.

A lot of changes have been made for the better. Like the Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, which strikes a better balance between fundamental and applied research.
But there’s always room for improvement. EU legislation on tenders is still seen as a major obstacle.

So I’m pleased that the new legislation which comes into force in April will provide more scope for an integrated approach. Public authorities and the private sector will be able to work together at a much earlier stage to develop and apply innovations. It’s a good move, and I hope full use will be made of the opportunities!

To conclude
New ideas and innovations that are important to society do not evolve themselves. The government can’t buy them by offering grants, and the market can’t pluck them out of thin air.
What works is an active government that fills us with a sense of urgency, brings stakeholders – and experts like you – together, and makes it easier to set to work. This is my personal commitment, especially during the Dutch EU Presidency.

And I get my inspiration from experts like you.

Because it’s important for you to tell me where the problems and obstacles are, and highlight opportunities for a more innovative and efficient approach to water and to the other challenges facing the world today. I hope to hear a lot more from you.

Thank you.