'Don’t respond to the past, but build for the future'

henk-ovink-3Henk Ovink 

What would the Sand Motor be without its ambassadors? Henk Ovink, the first water envoy for the Netherlands, is one of those ambassadors. As chair of the international audit committee, he played an important part in the assessment of the first pilot results. The committee will present its findings during the Sand Motor Conference. In the run-up to the conference, Ovink talks about the tremendous impact of our water innovations and their educational effect.

“As water envoy, I work together with the international water community and the Dutch water sector to improve water safety and security across the globe. This way, we can market the Dutch water knowledge and expertise: not with stories, but with results and within strong coalitions. Our water sector is unique and is itself made up from coalitions between government bodies, companies, and knowledge institutions. With outstanding expertise on water excess, but also on water shortages, on dirty and clean water. And on financing, governance and awareness”, Ovink explains.

Integral questioning

The water sector is a broad sector, with experts in water technology, water safety, delta technology, and maritime life. The Dutch approach to water safety is uncontested across the world. “The Netherlands are constantly focussed on our water safety. This assessment instinct is crucial. Living with water means working at water, always! At the start of this century, a survey of the weak links in our coastal protection really shook us up, but these analyses also created great opportunities for redevelopment of our coastline safety. How do we protect those vulnerable spots while answering and exploiting the economic, ecological and cultural challenges and opportunities? That integral way of asking questions has led to some amazing projects.”

Repairing or building?
Ovink sees the Sand Motor as a great example of that new way of thinking: “Dredge contractors who deposited sand to replenish the coast every year have made room for Building with Nature. Instead of perpetual coastal repairs, we chose to create a coast by really working together with nature, and helping her here and there. The sea’s currents and analyses of the natural shore erosion have been central to this.” The Netherlands are pioneers of this approach, and Ovink distinguishes important cultural differences here. “Many countries respond to issues of the past and look for short-term solutions. We want to reverse this way of thinking. Don’t respond to the past, but build for the future.”

Columbus’s Egg
But building requires scores of steps and measures. The Sand Motor alone does not suffice. “If we left it at this, we would end up running for our lives,” Ovink jests. His knowledge and expertise regarding water management have been recognised on the other side of the ocean as well. President Obama invited him to join the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Taskforce that worked on the restoration of the New York region after hurricane Sandy, with the express purpose to also plan the rising sea levels. “In those days, a journalist of a local television station asked me whether I would protect New York by building a single, huge storm surge barrier. Of course not! There is no single solution for protecting areas against high tides. Living with water means doing a thousand things at once.”

Investing and learning
Living with water is something you keep doing, it doesn’t stop. Ovink is convinced of it. “That is why we must always continue to invest and learn. That is the only way to improve, scale-up, and excel. By monitoring and evaluating, we can prevent repeating our past mistakes. The Sand Motor is a magnificent source of inspiration for this.” This sand distribution production island, as Ovink once jokingly called it, creates immense added value. “It is one of the wonderful, extraordinary projects our country has to offer.”