Henk Ovink has been Special Envoy for Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands since 2015. He has not always worked in water; his background is in engineering. Since becoming a Special Envoy for Water Affairs, he sees how water connects everything. He believes that one cannot work in the living environment without considering water. Henk shares his thoughts about his work and his ambitions. "When an approach works, you do not stop; you try to multiply it."
"Water is life," former Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon famously said. Henk could not agree more. He has grown to appreciate water and everything it connects to. "Food is about water. Climate is about water. Urban development is about water. Everything we touch is related to water." That is why he sees a huge worldwide relationship between water and the Sustainable Development Goals. "As Special Envoy for Water, I am in the special position to bring parties together. Whether on a diplomatic level or in a city or delta, water plays a critical role in every decision. This makes my role so interesting."
The financial approach versus a value-based one
But which solutions make a difference? "Some solutions are, in fact, not solutions at all," he says. He refers to projects that choose a short-term approach and aim for quick wins. "This may solve current problems but offers no solution in the long term." That is why he pleads for a systemic approach. Systemic approaches look for solutions with local interests that help communities. Not just now but also in the future. "Systemic solutions fundamentally change the way a system works. This way, you truly set something in motion. Many Dutch projects worldwide work with local partners on good, permanent solutions." The Sustainable Water Fund (FDW) also operates that way, choosing a value-based long-term approach. "This takes patience, energy, and trust. There are no quick wins in systemic solutions. But if the world remains stuck in short-term cost-benefit analyses, the future will become impossible."
From pilot to permanent solution
Although water connects everything, it can also be destructive if we do not take good care. Henk warns of a money-driven mindset. "Our focus should be on changing the systems that put money first. Sure, money is important in our world. But water is more important." Carrying out one good project with the proper goal is not enough either. The systemic approach involves more than one project. "A pilot project is wonderful, but it has no lasting effect. We want pilot projects to turn into programmes with permanent solutions." Sometimes, he argues, we celebrate our success too fast. "Of course, we can celebrate a good result. But one good result is not enough. We need to repeat that good result a thousand times."
Wake-up call from Henk
Water has never been this high on the international political agenda. And Henk says there is a good reason for this. "Every disaster that happens nowadays is water-related. We should be more aware of the extremes, such as floods and droughts. An optimist may say we are finally waking up, but we are not waking up fast enough if you ask me. We can achieve much more by joining forces, upscaling and making ourselves heard at the UN Conference. This is how we get a better result worldwide."
Henk believes we can make a change. "Success takes consistency, continuity and commitment. There is no magic trick or miracle medicine that will solve the climate or inequality issues we are facing now. We can make a difference by aiming for the long term. This does not always come naturally in certain projects. But consistency is the heart of our FDW programmes. We do not measure the success of a project by the project itself. We measure success by what a project sets in motion."
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