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More global efforts are needed for sustainable water, Henk Ovink says

Population growth, economic development amplify water challenges

Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for International Water Affairs
Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for International Water Affairs


Henk Ovink, a flood expert and special envoy from the Netherlands to the United Nations, says investment in water projects must be scaled up, as population growth and economic development adds to water-related challenges.

“No matter where in the world, water is life -- it helps build a better future and inform sustainable actions, and it helps bring us together,” Ovink said in a written interview with The Korea Herald.

Ovink said three water-related challenges - scarcity, pollution and flood risks - would increase due to population growth, economic development, increased agricultural production and climate change, in turn affecting water availability, sea levels and weather patterns.

“In order to secure water resources, an understanding of the complexity of water-related challenges and the existence of possible gaps is essential, as a basis for the development of sustainable strategies that can adequately reduce risks for the population, economic development, ecosystems and water associated migration and conflicts,” he said.

Henk Ovink was appointed in 2015 by the Dutch Cabinet as the first Special Envoy for International Water Affairs. As the Ambassador for Water, he is responsible for advocating water awareness around the world, building institutional capacity and coalitions among governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector and NGO’s, and initiating innovate approaches to address the world’s stressing needs on water

Ovink also served on President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force where he led the long-term innovation, resilience and rebuilding efforts.

“Local action, local capacity and local needs must be leveraged with global commitments, with indigenous knowledge and cultural capacity contributing to reducing social vulnerability,” the Dutch water expert said.

In 2015, the world agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a comprehensive agenda for sustainable development.

The High Level Panel on Water was founded in 2016 with a core focus on SDG 6. Comprising 11 heads of state and government, under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon, former secretary-general of the United Nations, and Jim Kim, former president of World Bank Group, the HLPW has traveled the world forging partnerships, developing understanding and securing commitments for water action.

Ovink said more efforts should be made to leapfrog ahead and invest more and better in water capacity, land management and infrastructure.

“It is time to scale up our investments in integrated, inclusive and sustainable water programs and projects,” he said.

Doing so pays off, according to the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations: Every $1 invested in safe drinking water in urban areas yields more than $3 in saved medical costs and added productivity.

“For every $1 invested in basic sanitation, society earns back $2.50. In rural areas, $7 is gained or saved for every $1 invested in clean drinking water,” he said. “So far, we have failed to seize this opportunity. We continue to invest in infrastructure projects from the past, taken off the shelves, to fill economic stimulus packages.”

Ovink said the availability of clean drinking water supports health, education and development, equal opportunities and inclusive sustainable growth. He believes preserving our ecosystems and natural resources ensures the resilience of our planet and society.

“By taking a preventive approach on our coasts and deltas and in our cities, we can avert the most serious problems and prepare ourselves and our world for a sustainable future that is strong and resilient,” he said. “Water and water narratives can unite people around the world - politicians and scientists, city dwellers and country dwellers.”

He believes people around the world have to come up with new solutions to tackle our future challenges, since the solutions of the past will make the world a worse place tomorrow.

“By being proactive, we can understand our future and build resiliently,” Ovink said. “Our policies are based on our understanding of yesterday and not on our understanding of tomorrow. Innovation also involves the task of helping us change our policies and practices.”

He initiated a program called “Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities Asia” to spur collaborative action.

“Water as Leverage” is living proof of both the need for action and the opportunities we can implement, if only we drive our actions inclusively, holistically and sustainably, he said.

“Water as Leverage brought me to Khulna, Bangladesh,” he recalled.

In the fall of 2019, just weeks after Cyclone Bulbul had made landfall, his partner for action, Abir-ul-Jabbar, the city’s chief planning officer, told him, “the mangroves saved Khulna City.”

Khulna, Bangladesh’s third-largest city, sits at the convergence of the Bhairab, Rupsa and Mayur Rivers, serving as a port and an important gateway on the northern edge of the Sundarbans. The mangrove forest, twice named on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is an important habitat for flora and fauna.

“The mangroves are beloved by local communities for providing livelihoods and sustaining the region,” he said. “While the Sundarbans suffered damage during the cyclone, the mangroves in fact slowed wind velocities, sparing inland cities from devastation.”

He believes Khulna City is testament to the long-term value of water projects, not only to sustain daily life, but also to dull the catastrophic force of climate disasters.

“There is an urgent need on water and climate action and we lag behind in delivering on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement,” he said. “There is a gap between the urgently needed pro-active climate action and the reactive approaches (that are happening).”

He says this gap makes communities, natural systems and economies more vulnerable.

“As I have learnt over the past decade, working around the globe, in every region, on every continent, with different people and partners everywhere, it is water that can drive us apart, cripple our lives, destroy our environments and our economies and strengthen the impacts and origins of climate change,” Ovink said.

“But it is also water that enables us to come together and do better, catalyzes the changes we need and is the true inspiration for sustainable development, lasting partnerships and transformative climate action.”



By Shin Ji-hye (shinjh@heraldcorp.com)
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