Speech by the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, Melanie Schultz van Haegen, at the Making Waves event

Thank you, Mr Annan, for your inspiring words. You spoke about hope. Hope that we could turn ambitions into action. I agree with you entirely.

Today’s event showcases 17 concrete examples to show that the leap from ambition to action is possible. Actions that inspire confidence in a better future. The world needs these ideas. Why is that so important? Because we have to limit global warming and we have to adapt to its consequences.

We are seeing the impact of climate change around the world. We’re seeing rivers burst their banks. Like in China, where the Yellow River flooding caused hundreds of lives. And in Japan, where in early July hundreds of thousands of people had to be evacuated. In Nepal, Bangladesh and India the monsoons claimed more than 1.500 lives last weeks. Even in countries that don’t normally suffer from flooding, like Peru and Canada, there were floods this year. Last week, as you noticed, the US joined the list.

The threat comes from the sea too. Bangladesh, for example, is not only suffering from the monsoons. It also risks losing one-fifth of its territory to the sea!

The other side of the coin is drought. The Middle East is drier than ever. Italy experienced its driest spring and summer in 60 years. There wasn’t enough drinking water for the people of Rome.

The impact of all this doesn’t just affect the people in those regions, the liveability of their region and the economic situation in their country. We’re also seeing something else. Already, more people are displaced by natural disasters than by conflicts. Already, there are more climate refugees than war refugees.

We don’t always see them here in the West. Because climate refugees tend to flee within their own country, or to a neighbouring country. They flock to the cities, because they can no longer live off the land. With heavy hearts, they abandon the region where their family has lived for generations. In the places where they go, more and more people are crowded together, bringing more and more tensions between populations. Making climate change a driver of conflict.

Mr Middendorp, our Chief of Defence, has noted in various forums that the civil war in Syria was preceded by a 7-year drought in the country’s main farming region. Harvests failed, in the red-coloured area on the map. Causing many farmers and their families to move to the cities. That’s where the conflict started.

The same is true of the Arab Spring. It started when people in Cairo and Tunis took to the streets to protest at the high price of bread. Wheat crops had failed as a result of forest fires and floods, that in turn were caused by climate change.

My point is this: water and the big challenges associated with it are not just an issue for water or climate ministers who want to help countries with problems. Water is crucial to international stability, which also makes it a matter for ministers of defence and foreign affairs,  prime ministers and presidents. They should not only talk about how to stop migration by creating a defense ring around Europe. They should also be concerned with projects that make the regions more climate resilient.

The United Nations estimates the number of climate refugees will reach 200 million by 2050. These are the world’s most vulnerable people, those who live off the land. Over half of the world’s population lives on coasts. Exposed to the risk of flooding, as the sea level rises. It is not just about countries like Bangladesh or India. In 2015, the American news organisation Climate Central predicted that 414 cities in the US will suffer the same fate as the island state of Tuvalu: they will be taken over by the sea. They are not the smallest cities: the list includes Miami, as seen on the screen, New Orleans and New York. If we do nothing, large parts of these cities will be uninhabitable in less than a century.

Ladies and gentlemen, in recent years I have travelled far and wide to spread the message about water, and to share Dutch expertise with other countries. I’ve seen a great deal and learnt a great deal. When you take a boat trip in Vietnam, you feel the threat. When you stand beside the rivers of Bangladesh, you feel the threat. When you stand on the seawall of Jakarta – as yet only about a metre high – you feel the threat.

That doesn’t make me despair. On the contrary, it puts me in a fighting mood. I refuse to accept these developments as a fact of life!

My travels, and the many talks I’ve had with the business representatives travelling with me, have also filled me with hope. Because those businesses can find solutions. We can do this! We can anticipate the impact of climate change. And we can act!

We are doing more research and we have more knowledge than ever before. Deltares, the Dutch institute for applied research in the field of water, uses models to indicate precisely where drought and floods will strike. That knowledge enables us to take targeted measures. We are not powerless: we can do something!

My own country is an excellent example. 2000 years ago, the Netherlands was a land of marshes and swamps. The Romans didn’t even think it worth conquering. Their advance stopped at the Rhine. The muddy swamp to the north didn’t interest them.

Starting in the late Middle Ages, we’ve made our country what it is today. Step by step, we reclaimed land from the water, most recently the big port extension near Rotterdam. And now, in 2017, we’re the safest delta and one of the most prosperous nations in the world. So much for the muddy swamp!

For me it is clear: We can do something! We do have future prospects. There are alternatives – as you’re showing us today.

Hopeful developments can be found in numerous places. Last October I was in Iran and I heard about Lake Urmia. A salt lake as big as the Netherlands, which is drying up fast. These satellite images date from 1984 to 2014. The water level is sinking by almost a metre a year. Only 5% of the water is left. It’s a salt lake. The water that’s left has got saltier and saltier, killing all the fish. The more the water level sinks, the more salt is blown over the surrounding farmland.

But since 2014, the Iranian government has taken steps to tackle the problem. A dam is being built, along with tunnels and canals to transport water from the Lavin River to the lake.

Humans can be very destructive. But we can also repair the damage!

The same is true for the Loess Plateau in China. You wouldn’t think so, but these are 2 photos of the same valley. Taken by the American journalist John Liu. The first dates from 1995. The second, the green one, shows the plateau as it is today.

For centuries, local farmers grazed their herds of sheep, cows and goats on the Loess Plateau. It became barer and barer. Eventually, no vegetation was left. Rain was no longer absorbed by the soil, but flowed directly into the Yellow River. The plateau became a desert. Until China resolved to replant the valley and offered farmers financial compensation for a 10-year period if they kept their animals inside. In the space of 15 years, the plateau was transformed from an arid desert to a green valley.

These examples are inspiring. They give hope. They show that humankind is very resourceful. Which brings me back to the present day. Because today’s pitches testify to that resourcefulness. If we do our best, we can create water in the desert. If we do our best, we can recycle PET plastic. If we do our best, we can extract energy from the heat locked in the oceans.

Making Waves is all about making things possible. I hope that everyone will go home with a list of concrete actions to take. The world can benefit from your inventiveness. It’s our responsibility – the responsibility of everyone here – to take these innovations further.

There’s a great deal at stake. We can help to make the world safer for millions of people. We can help to make the world more stable, so that people have more reason to stay than to flee. Water is the responsibility of the world’s political leaders. We are making waves today, not only in the cause of climate and water. We are making waves today to awaken the political leaders of the world and show them that we need their joint action.

Thank you.