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As Miami Beach battles rising seas, Dutch water expert offers advice

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Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for Water Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, knows flooding

Photo by Alexei Barrionuevo

Growing up in the Netherlands, Henk Ovink saw how the country’s problems with water, and its construction of an elaborate system of dykes and flood control systems to hold back the sea, made it an international oddity. In an era of climate change, the Dutch aren’t outliers anymore—they’re pioneers.

“For us, water is energy, life, food, cities,” says the Dutch water expert. “The rest of the world, through climate change, urbanization, growth, and prosperity, is rapidly starting to understand our way of life.”

Ovink’s knowledge of water management and engineering, and other city’s desires to tap his expertise, have sent him on a particular kind of world tour. Once Netherland’s Chief of Water Management, as well as an advisor to President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Task Force, he’s now Special Envoy for Water Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a job that sends him across the globe surveying resiliency plans and advising cities on how to prepare for some of the potentially costly impacts of climate change.

During his recent trip to Miami, a city seriously threatened by a rising ocean that’s meant investing $400 million in rebuilding and retrofitting Miami Beach, Ovink picked up on the anxiety. But his mission, like a true Dutch engineer, is that solutions are possible: didn’t his nation prosper from proper planning?

Curbed spoke to him after his trip to South Florida to get his advice for one of the nation’s most threatened coasts.

How are you tackling the issue of sea level rise differently in the Netherlands?

“We looked towards the future, and as a result, built a nation that prepares and is resilient. Future shocks and stresses are dealt with because the system is robust, redundant, and ready to bounce back. It’s both infrastructure and governance. We have a 100 year planning and design process built in, and 15 years of funding to build out and maintain the system.”

“In the United States and many other places, comprehensiveness is lacking. Nobody is connecting the dots. The planning process isn’t long enough, and there isn’t a systems approach. There’s no understanding of the impact of water failure, and how it impacts food, energy, urbanization: everything is siloed. How can you deal with the complexities of the world, if you don’t organize with complexity and interconnectedness in mind?

“The Netherlands also prepared responsibly and was always ready to respond and repair quickly. I’m very impressed with how they’re dealing with the issue in Miami Beach. They’re building a smarter, more redundant system.”

Henk Ovink
Government of the Netherlands

What are they doing that impresses a Dutch water expert?

“They’re incrementally preparing the island, with bigger roads, better pumping systems, and raising critical infrastructure so when water levels rise, they’ll avoid shutdown or catastrophe. That’s a very intelligent way of preparing their space for future uncertainties. Of course, you can also take a more critical approach; you can’t do this island by island, you need to take a regional approach. But the incremental, high-quality, safety approach is to be applauded. But it has to go together with a metro-scale, Miami region process, which isn’t happening.”

If you had total design freedom, what would your water resiliency plan for Miami for the next five to ten years look like?

“First you have to define Miami. In the Netherlands, we focused on the entire delta, all four rivers, and worked together. You also need to do the research to find the right scale to address the issue. A good plan comes out of facts—not alternative facts—understanding opportunities, vulnerabilities, the culture, and ecology. A deep dive will give you the opportunity to come up with a long-term plan.

“You also need something that’s politically and socially actionable. You don’t want all doom and gloom. You want an action report. That can only come from a comprehensive analysis that says, ‘Here’s the roadmap for the next 50 years, and here’s what we do in the first five.’ There’s momentum to change. Doing the right analysis and getting started; you could create a hotspot for change.”

How do you prepare and become more resilient as a city, at a time when condo building and development continue on the waterfront?

“It’s possible, but you’re right, it’s a challenge. Our research shows the financial assets on the waterfront are increasing and their vulnerability is increasing too. We’re talking trillions of dollars. Miami is always in the top ten of cities with assets at risk. You need to change the mindset and the time frame. The return on investment for developers is too short to take climate change into account.”

“Think about people taking 30-year mortgages on properties that might be underwater in a few decades. You need to get finance to be the thing that turns the needle towards better investment—can you change the insurance industry and private investors to value things on the long term? I don’t have a crystal ball, so I’m not sure how that happens.”

Are there any ways to create the right incentives for sustainable development?

“You’re already seeing this around the world, which is making me optimistic. The climate agreement is Paris wasn’t just a government agreement. It was backed up by an agreement by private investors and banks who said climate change isn’t just about climate security, it’s about portfolio security. Let’s invest in a smarter way. Places like Miami can start that conversation with the investors, insurers, and developers, to change their perspective and start to develop differently. You can be an example for the world. I think Miami has the capacity because the dynamics are there, the investor interest is immense. They don’t want to see their money go to waste. How can you find a way to bend how you do business, and I think we’re at a critical point in history where we have to bend the way we deal with the future.”