Speech by Mark Harbers, Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management, at the international conference on ‘Redesigning Deltas’, Kunsthal Rotterdam

“By establishing an international SDG Champions Group for deltas and coastal zones, we will give a boost to research and development. In this group, delta countries and cities, knowledge institutions and financiers will develop proposals for making deltas more resilient. We plan to launch the Champions Group at COP27 in Egypt.” 
Dit kondigt de minister aan bij het internationale congres Re-designing deltas in Rotterdam op 16 juni.
Speech gaat online.

Good morning everyone.

And welcome to Rotterdam. A dynamic delta city, that also happens to be where I live.
Rotterdam is the perfect place for discussing ways of better protecting our deltas. Because the people of this city are fully aware of both the great appeal of deltas and their vulnerabilities.

This is not a new topic for me. Some fifteen years ago, I was a member of the Rotterdam municipal executive. In that capacity I was closely involved in the city’s climate change adaptation efforts.
I joined the municipal executive at the same time the Rotterdam Climate Initiative was launched. This was one of the first big municipal programmes on climate change in the Netherlands.
In 2008, for instance, we set up the Rotterdam Climate Campus to develop expertise on water-resilient building design. We wanted to make Rotterdam a testing ground for things like floating houses.

And it’s great to see people actually living in these houses today. To see that more knowledge does in fact result in action on the ground.
Because thát is what’s required. Not only in Rotterdam, but in all deltas worldwide.

More knowledge. More action. Better protection of people living in deltas. That’s why we’re here today: academics, practitioners and policy makers from several different countries. 
Whether you’re from the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh or the Dutch Delta… we all face similar threats.
And the urgency of addressing them has been set out clearly in the IPCC’s most recent report:  

  • Sea levels are rising faster than expected, and are now projected to be half a metre higher than current levels by 2050. And one metre higher by 2100.
  • And deltas are expected to experience more storm surges and flooding.

Deltas and other coastal zones are most at risk. Areas that are home to some 500 million people worldwide. A number that will increase by 50 per cent by 2050.
2050 and 2100 sound like the distant future. But if we want the future inhabitants of river deltas to be protected, we will have to act now.

The Netherlands has been working on this issue for some time.
A quarter of our country is below sea level. Two-thirds are vulnerable to flooding. And these areas generate 70 per cent of our GDP.

So we’ve made vital decisions to better protect our delta.
For many decades, we fought to keep the water out. By raising barriers and dams and aiming for maximum discharge. The Delta Works are a good example of this approach, with the Maeslant Barrier– the flood surge barrier that protects Rotterdam – as the jewel in the crown.
Today, our focus has shifted more to prevention and adaptation. To using the power of water and giving it space where needed.
Drought has become more of a problem too. So we need expertise on retaining water, storing it and distributing it, instead of getting rid of it as quickly as possible.

This means we’re making new spatial planning decisions.
For 800 years we reclaimed land from the sea, built polders and maximised rivers’ discharge.
But now we need to adapt to climate change and, in some areas, to water shortages.
What we’re also seeing are periods of drought followed by extreme rainfall, which can cause flash floods.

In other words, sometimes we need maximum drainage and at other times we need maximum retention. So, when it comes to water, the Netherlands needs a new set of principles.
Let me give you an example. Some 50 kilometres upstream from here, we redeveloped Noordwaard as part of the Room for the River programme. 
Dikes were removed, making the former 2,000 hectare polder a floodplain. Mounds still offer a safe retreat. This was all done with a view to preventing flooding of densely populated areas downstream.
This has been a major culture shift. A country that has been building dikes for 800 years is now taking them away to protect its towns and cities! 
It sounds contradictory, but it works.

Another new principle is to let our spatial planning decisions be more strongly guided by water, the soil and the subsurface.
We need to build 100,000 new homes a year over the next 10 years. 
And to do this sustainably, we will look much more closely at the condition of the ground and the availability of water. Delta Commissioner Peter Glas will tell you more about this shortly.

The knowledge and experience we’re gaining here is relevant for all river deltas worldwide. And we are always keen to share this knowledge.
Because the world needs to accelerate its efforts. According to the UN we need to move four times faster if we are to achieve SDG 6 by 2030. And better protect future generations. Because that’s the ultimate goal.

The Netherlands wants to contribute to this acceleration by driving action to achieve impact. 
Firstly, through the UN 2023 Water Conference, that we’re co-organising with Tajikistan. The aim is to reach agreement internationally on achieving the SDGs faster. And on a concrete Water Action Agenda, that will set out what participating countries will do in real terms to achieve the water SDGs.
Secondly, by establishing an international SDG Champions Group, specifically for deltas and coastal zones. 

In this group, delta countries and cities, knowledge institutions and financiers will develop proposals for making deltas more resilient. The Champions will encourage international knowledge development and convert abstract knowledge into practical recommendations. 
We will build on our own experience with the Delta programme and our longstanding cooperation with other delta countries in projects like Partners for Water, as part of our International Water Ambition.

We plan to launch the Champions Group at COP27 in Egypt. Followed by a presentation of the first working programme and analyses at the UN Water Conference in 2023.
This will give a major boost to research and development aimed at deltas and coastal zones.
Many partners have already expressed their interest in participating. I believe that underscores the urgency and commitment we all feel in regard to this challenge.
So let’s make sure our efforts result in new energy and new action. Let’s really drive action to achieve impact.

For now, I urge you all to continue sharing knowledge after this conference ends. Your knowledge, your expertise and your cooperation are vital for people living in the world’s deltas.
And I hope this conference will provide you with inspiration for your work.

Thank you.