What does the Special Envoy for International Water Affairs do?

The Special Envoy for International Water Affairs travels the world to help countries with their water-related problems – like flooding or drought. Wherever possible he calls on the expertise of Dutch businesses or knowledge institutions. Henk Ovink is the Netherlands’ first Special Envoy for International Water Affairs.

Representing the Dutch water sector

The Special Envoy is a diplomat. He represents the Dutch government at international level on issues relating to flood protection and water security. He is also the figurehead of the Dutch water sector. Both in the Netherlands and abroad, he works in partnership with public authorities, businesses, research institutions, civil society organisations, and embassies and consulates in the areas of:

  • research
  • policy
  • cooperation and negotiation
  • water projects
  • investment opportunities
  • innovation.

The Special Envoy works for the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Infrastructure & Water Management, Economic Affairs & Climate Policy, and Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality.

Hoogwater bij Lobith, Nederland.
Image: Rob Poelenjee

High water at Lobith, the Netherlands.

Image: Rob Poelenjee

Submerged meadowland in the Netherlands.

Climate change leading to more water-related problems

Because of climate change, people worldwide are affected more and more often by water-related problems like:

  • heavy rainfall
  • hurricanes
  • tsunamis
  • soil subsidence
  • salinisation
  • extreme drought
  • water shortages
  • lack of water services
  • contaminated drinking water.

These problems can lead to:

  • food shortages
  • health problems
  • migrant and refugee flows
  • inequality
  • flooding
  • energy shortages
  • degradation of nature.

At the same time, more and more people are living in cities, often located on rivers or the coast. Sea-level rise is making these areas increasingly vulnerable. All over the world, water-related problems are putting growing pressure on economies, societies and flora and fauna. If nothing is done, these problems can affect millions of people and cause billions’ worth of damage.

'Worldwide, water is the connecting challenge, the number one global risk and our biggest opportunity for comprehensive cultural change.’ – Henk Ovink

Too little awareness

Water, or lack of it, is not always seen as the cause of certain problems. Many people aren’t aware that a good water strategy could help them tackle problems that are actually water-related.

More demand for water management

Water-related problems are leading to more demand for water management. Water management can answer questions like:

  • How should we protect low-lying areas from sea-level rise?
  • How do we make sure there is enough drinking water for everyone?
  • How do we distribute water equitably?
  • How do we build our cities so that floods cause less damage?
  • And how can nature help us?

Dutch expertise in water management

The Special Envoy for International Water Affairs promotes the Dutch water sector and its know-how. Public authorities, knowledge institutions and businesses in the Netherlands are famous the world over for their expertise – in building dikes and ports and reclaiming land, and in purifying water and using it efficiently. The Netherlands is also well known for the way in which the various stakeholders work together. Other countries can learn from these solutions and partnerships.

For more information on water management in the Netherlands, go to water top sector and water innovations.

'The Netherlands is the land of water. People from all corners of the earth know this.' – Henk Ovink

Raising water awareness

The Special Envoy for International Water Affairs is committed to raising water awareness worldwide – through research and the development of the World Water Atlas. On this digital platform countries can share their stories and solutions, and tackle their water-related problems together.

The Special Envoy also advised the High Level Panel on Water on the international Agenda for Water Action, which is made up of 11 presidents and prime ministers. The aim of the Agenda for Water Action is to increase understanding of water problems and improve water management around the world.

Improving the Netherlands’ involvement in existing projects

The Dutch water sector works on water management in many countries. The International Water Ambition focuses on deltas, river basins and arid regions. The work of the Special Envoy is aimed at:

  • strengthening the Dutch water sector;
  • creating opportunities;
  • helping to set up projects and business cases;
  • mediating between parties;
  • launching new initiatives.

The projects all relate to flood protection and water security. So, they deal with either too much or too little water, or contaminated water.


Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100

The Netherlands is working hard with the World Bank and other partners to implement the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

The vulnerable nature of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam presents opportunities for a balanced combination of agriculture, urbanisation and the natural environment. It is essential to build with nature here.

Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar

Delta management is still in its infancy in Myanmar. Working with the World Bank and partner countries like Australia, the Netherlands is setting up a plan for the Irrawaddy Delta which will serve as a model for the entire Myanmar delta region.


In the Philippines, where typhoon Haiyan caused massive destruction in 2013, the Netherlands is strengthening the coast and constructing a new port.


The Special Envoy for International Water Affairs is working to achieve sustainable funding and coastal protection for the port city of Beira.

South Africa

The Special Envoy is working with the Dutch Water Authorities and the Kingfisher II Programme on water management policy.

Paraná Delta, Argentina

In Argentina, the Special Envoy is working on the Paraná Delta and the inland waterways.


Various projects are making the cities in Chile less vulnerable to flooding and climate change.


Various projects are making the cities in Mexico less vulnerable to flooding and climate change.


Various projects are making the cities in Canada less vulnerable to flooding and climate change.


After the 2017 floods, the Special Envoy is now helping Peru with a crisis management strategy. He is also ensuring follow-up to projects that make the country and its cities and rivers more resilient against flooding.

United States

The innovative programme Rebuild by Design was started after Hurricane Sandy to come up with solutions to avert future disasters in the New York area. The programme has had several spin-offs. One of them, the Resilient by Design Challenge, is to prepare the San Francisco Bay Area for the impact of climate change.

Continuing the innovative approach to water management

Climate change poses a serious challenge to many countries. Extreme drought, for example, may lead to failed harvests, food insecurity, refugee flows and conflict. Sea-level rise and increasingly severe storms will make coastal cities and their inhabitants more vulnerable, as we have seen in Asia and the United States, and threaten investment in these areas. With Rebuild by Design, the Special Envoy for International Water Affairs launched an innovative programme in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. This strategy is being followed up in other parts of the United States.

The Special Envoy for International Water Affairs wants to continue developing and launching innovative strategies and projects. For this reason, he initiated the Water as Leverage programme, which enables partners to invest in smart innovations that will make Asian cities less vulnerable to climate change.