The Netherlands’ Special Envoy for International Water Affairs says the key is to develop inclusive and bankable solutions for urban water challenges.

Henk Ovink, the Dutch government’s special envoy for international water affairs, has initiated the Water as Leverage programme, aiming to build urban resilience to climate change. Investors play a key role to turn innovative plans and ideas into reality.

He is joining a workshop in Singapore this week, where coalitions and financing partners come together to discuss design proposals from three cities: Chennai (India), Khulna (Bangladesh) and Semarang (Indonesia).

We talked with him about water as leverage for making cities resilient, the need to collaborate and the power of storytelling.

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Why Asia?

Southeast and South Asia are highly vulnerable for climate change. When the extremes become more extreme, people in this region are hit hardest. Cities like Semarang, Khulna and Chennai are facing huge water problems. Though, water can also be used as leverage to catalyse positive change in these cities.

‘Water as leverage is not easy’, says Ovink. ‘Wicked problems don’t go by easy solutions. The challenges are complex, and hence, so will the solutions be. We need to embrace complexity.’

According to Ovink, local communities, NGOs, policy makers, scientists and designers need to partner and work together right from the start: from the inception phase all the way through to the implementation. You can read the full interview here.

Photos © Cynthia van Elk | Water as Leverage

How do you convince people, in countries with more hierarchical structures, of an integrated approach?

‘The key is in building coalitions that can agree on a new common. Then people will start working together to make it come true. Defining a new common and working on it is not typical Dutch. It’s universal.

‘When I worked with Tamils in Chennai I saw the same. They also developed a new common and started collaborating to make it come true. It is an approach that works anywhere in the world.’

Is there a role for storytelling to play in this comprehensive approach?

‘We need storytelling to embrace complexity, while at the same time keeping things understandable for all stakeholders. Storytelling belongs to the same family as designing, both are aspirational and inspirational.’

‘Plans without projects fail and a project without a plan fails too – it will not change the lives, hearts and minds of people. The story of a plan can help to look forward.’