Speech by Mark Harbers, Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management, at the Marker Wadden Conference

Ladies and gentlemen,

On the face of it, you’d say this conference had a classical Dutch theme.
People think of the Netherlands as a country of polders. And rightly so.
For centuries we have built dykes, pumped water out and reclaimed land.
The creation of the Marker Wadden fits neatly in that tradition.

And yet on 22 March 2016 something special happened in the Markermeer. Even by Dutch standards!

On that day, De Kreeft – a crane ship – started building the submerged breakwaters that would form the contours of the Marker Wadden.
It marked the start of reclaiming land from the lake.
But for the first time it wasn’t being done to serve economic interests but to benefit nature and water quality. That’s what makes it so special.

The Marker Wadden provide a wealth of information that we’re keen to share with you.
So we’re delighted you’re here! A warm welcome to you all!   

The aim of the Marker Wadden project was to restore life to the lake.
Markermeer was originally created with a view to draining it and turning it into a polder.
But the plan fell through.
What was left was a freshwater lake without currents or natural dynamics.
Slowly but surely, living organisms were choked by advancing sedimentation.

A way needed to be found to improve water quality, restore the natural balance and at the same time boost the lake’s recreational function.
In 2016, the construction of the Marker Wadden marked an exciting new venture, even for a country of polders.
An unusual feature was that a problem was transformed into a solution. The sediment wasn’t dredged and deposited elsewhere, but instead was used as building material. A great new example of building with nature.

Six years have since passed, and seven islands have been built. A thousand hectares of new nature area. And we’re seeing natural ecosystems recover.

  • In the space of a few years, 47 bird species have started breeding on the Marker Wadden.
  • The vegetation is diverse – there are 170 plant species.
  • Insects and fish species are thriving, and the shoreline is particularly suited to juvenile fish.
  • The water quality along the shores of the islands is also improving, and the water is becoming clearer again. We don’t yet know whether this is happening on a larger scale. For that, more research is needed.
  • The islands also draw around 18,000 visitors each year, attracted by the emerging nature.

It’s wonderful to see measures working out as we intended!

Another aim of the Marker Wadden project was to acquire new knowledge.
That’s why a Marker Wadden knowledge and innovation programme was set up five years ago.

Monitoring and research were carried out during the construction phase. Focusing not just on technical issues, but also on administrative processes. The partnership between Rijkswaterstaat, Natuurmonumenten, Ecoshape and Deltares has been excellent.

This new knowledge is of great value for the reform of general water management in the Netherlands.
We need new insights.

For decades we have mainly tried to keep water out; building dams and maximising drainage. The Delta Works are a good example. It was the right approach for the climate of the past.

But the climate of the past is not today’s climate, and it certainly isn’t the climate of the future.
Increasingly, the problem isn’t too much water, but too little. This summer was bone dry – again. Agriculture and nature struggled – again. And water quality isn’t as good as it should be.

In short, the Netherlands needs to rethink its approach to water.
We’re working hard to restore streams and watercourses, making room for natural water dynamics.

  • We’re giving the Meuse room to meander,
  • restoring tidal areas in the Eastern Scheldt through sand nourishment
  • and using sediment and sea clay to build the sea dykes in the Eems Dollard estuary.

It’s important to learn from projects like the Marker Wadden. We can make use of this knowledge elsewhere.
Nationally and internationally.

Because other countries also struggle with issues like climate adaptation, water quality and biodiversity.
There’s a lot of interest in building with nature.
Take the sand motor that for ten years now has been strengthening the Dutch coast in a natural way, by making use of currents.

There too, we have systematically gathered and shared knowledge and experience. Three sand motors are now at work elsewhere in the world.

There’s also a lot of international interest in the Marker Wadden. And in building with sediment.
Sand is scarce worldwide, and it’s expensive. But there’s no shortage of sediment. Building with sediment is sustainable and has great potential, but is also complex. The lessons learned from the Marker Wadden will help us all in concrete ways.
So I’m delighted that you’re interested in this project. I hope it will inspire you and lead to an even greater exchange of ideas, knowledge and best practices in the field of international water management.

The Netherlands is keen to share its expertise on water. Not just today, where we’re sharing knowledge on the Marker Wadden.
But also at COP27 in Egypt later this year.

There, we want to launch an international Champions Group for deltas and coastal areas. A forum in which delta countries, delta cities, knowledge institutions and financial organisations will jointly work on proposals to make deltas resilient.

We’ll be presenting the first work programme and initial analyses at the UN 2023 Water Conference that we’re co-hosting with Tajikistan in New York next March. The aim is to make international agreements and draw up a concrete Water Action Agenda.

I hope this will act as a catalyst for action and perhaps lead to more experimental projects like the Marker Wadden.

I’m proud that we’re able to share knowledge today about this unique Dutch experiment.
I’d like to thank all the organisations that have worked hard to make this happen.

And I urge you all to keep sharing knowledge going forward. Because there’s still so much we can learn.
I wish you all a productive conference!

Thank you.