"Water is a cross-cutting issue, important for the gender gap, for economic development, for resilience and climate action, but also in the context of security, poverty, biodiversity - you name it, water is there".
In his role as a water envoy, Henk Ovink is helping to drive a new international water agenda through raising awareness, driving preparedness and focusing on the innovations and opportunities that can provide leverage towards a more sustainable and resilient future.
However, the naturally optimistic Ovink is somewhat circumspect when it comes to water, describing it as "a tough challenge to raise water to the highest level of attention".
"If you invest in water security, your health costs go down, your biodiversity goes up, your environmental resiliency goes up, your economic opportunities go up, so it's not hard," says Ovink, continuing. "But it's very hard to shift gear on water."
Speaking to The Water Diplomat's David Duncan, Ovink discussed his work, the Netherlands' cultural approach to valuing water and ways to leverage water to address climate change.
David Duncan: Henk, what is a Special Envoy for International Water Affairs?
Henk Ovink: An envoy, in diplomatic terms, is a dedicated ambassador to a theme, in my case, water. Now, why water? The Dutch government realized how important water was, not only for the Netherlands, but for the world. It’s a cross-cutting issue important for the gender gap, for economic development, for resilience and climate action, but also in the context of security, poverty, biodiversity - you name it, water is there. This idea of a water envoy was part of a bigger scheme, a new international water agenda.
Now, what do I do? Three main things. I help raise awareness on water, through research partnerships, working with schoolchildren in Peru or in Bangladesh, but also by helping to set up a high-level panel on water with presidents and prime ministers, developing research to really get a better understanding of the complexity on water.
The second is helping to drive preparedness. We have floods and droughts and wars over water. As a global water community, we have to see how we can come out of these disasters better prepared for the future.
And thirdly, work on the innovative challenges. I call it a leverage, like a real springboard towards a more sustainable and resilient future.
The last one is perhaps the most important because what we see around the world are amazing examples of water action, but they are only drops on a hot plate. We lack scale, we lack replication and we lack commitment, public and private, to really help us to become more sustainable.
David Duncan: Is the Netherlands unique in this approach?
Henk Ovink: Part of it is noblesse oblige, part of it is really wanting to share what we know with the world. Sharing capacity and understanding, but also lessons learned. We know that good water quality is good for health and food and security. Clean water is very much baked into our culture too. In the mid-19th century, we had this massive cholera outbreak that made us realize that water and sanitation are of critical importance. In our housing law of 1901, water and sanitation were already part of a mechanism to help sustainable urban development. So, it is a little bit more than dams, dykes and levees.
The rest of the world looks at the Netherlands as this big mix of nature-based solutions and bold infrastructure, but water is cultural. In the Netherlands, we had water governance in the 12th century - water authorities with elected officials. You paid taxes. We weren't a kingdom, there was no constitution, but we were already organized around water. And those water authorities, that base layer of our democracy, founded on the principles of safety and quality, are the fourth layer in our constitution of public governance. So it isn't just infrastructure, luckily it is culture. And I think that is exactly why we wanted to make sure that the world understands that water is more than a dam, a levee or a pump, a sanitation facility or technique. No, this is really something to value, to care for, to govern, to understand, to cherish, to empower.
David Duncan: Do you detect a growing global awareness of and response to water challenges?
Henk Ovink: My parents were optimists and they raised me in that optimism. But I must say, when it comes to water, I don't share that optimism. After 14 months of covid-19, we all know the first line of defence is to wash our hands. There are over two billion people lacking access to safe drinking water, over three billion lacking access to hygiene facilities, and over four to safe sanitation facilities, yet we did not change course in the last 14 months. I'm not cynical, I'm just saying it is a tough challenge to raise water to the highest level of attention. If you invest in water security, your health costs go down, your biodiversity goes up, your environmental resiliency goes up, your economic opportunities go up. So it's not hard. But it's very hard to shift gear on water.
That is also why the Netherlands, together with Tajikistan and many other countries, put its shoulder under this next United Nations water conference in 2023. It will be the first time since 1977 and the second time in the history of the United Nations that we will have a UN conference on water. It will be a watershed moment. We hope! We got the active support of 190 countries. But if you look into the UN system, there is no political platform that discusses water. There is no organization that is responsible for water. There is a meeting called UN Water, where all these UN agencies plus the World Bank get together, but the capacity when you think about the importance of water, of course, is not enough.
It's of critical importance to understand that this is not a hobby of the Netherlands and Tajikistan. No, it is a global commitment that we made and that we now really have to exploit to the max, using all our other summits on biodiversity, on food, on oceans, on climate, to drive efforts towards 2023 and then use 2023 as a springboard for real water action.
David Duncan: This year’s UN theme of World Water Day was “Valuing Water”. What does “Valuing Water” mean to you?
Henk Ovink: Valuing water as a theme is not new. But three pillars came out of the high-level panel on water that I helped set up, with 11 heads of states, the Secretary-General of the UN and the president of the World Bank, to really raise that awareness and insight on water. The first was: we have to understand water’s complexity and use it to really benefit from the complexity. Second: we need to value water better. And that means we have to recognize and embrace these multiple values - social, cultural, environmental, economic. Thirdly, you then use those values to build trust and engagement and inclusion. And then also use those values to educate and empower, to invest and innovate.
Out of this came the Valuing Water Initiative that the Dutch government still leads. You can join this global commitment, bring your initiatives to that platform and help ensure that the world is stepping up. So, valuing water is of critical importance, but it has to lead to a different type of action, lead to the change we seek. You need that type of commitment, as you need the commitment of every boy and girl across the world in the communities that are vulnerable, that are at the forefront of water and security.
David Duncan: We don't know what shape COP26 might take, but it has been described as an "implementation COP"? Will water's voice be louder at this COP?
Henk Ovink: We had the Adaptation Summit in January, hosted by the Netherlands, where water was a critical pillar for driving climate adaptation action. We work closely now with the UK and many other partners to put water high on the agenda, and with iAgua and SIWI and many, many more. We will make sure that there is a water pavilion at the COP26. Not a pavilion where the water sector will come together, but a pavilion where the world will come together and rally around water. The water sector will facilitate this forging [of] partnerships across all sectors, across all stakeholders and interests, because we need this global movement to shift gear on climate action. Water can not only be a driving force, but also an inspiration.
It has the capacity to drive us apart - too much water, wars over water, not enough water and the challenged quality of water - but if you look closely, it really has the power to connect, bring us together, and then water as a shared resource all of a sudden can help us group together, forge an environment, help us understand. We will continue to drive that agenda, but never alone. The Netherlands is a very small country. We love our water and our water culture, but that culture is based on partnership, partnership, partnership.
David Duncan: The World Water Forum now scheduled for March 2022 in Dakar, Senegal, is themed around water security for peace and development. Do you agree that water is increasingly being recognised as a vector in human conflict?
Henk Ovink: Water, of course, is never the sole reason why parties fight. There are many drivers for conflict. Water can definitely be a part of that. If we understand water right, if we value it accordingly and manage it inclusively and sustainably, water can be an enabler for the security we seek. It's mostly not water, but the way we manage water that can be a driving force for insecurity. Our investments and interventions in our water systems, groundwater, riverine, oceans, are actually driving forces for insecurity. Turning that around makes water the real springboard, the leverage, the center point where we come together and find solutions that keep us together and then build that sustainability and resilience we seek.
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