Henk Ovink
Illustration: Lauren Nassef | Art Direction: Jelena Schulz

Henk Ovink is both principal of Rebuild By Design and the first Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He also served as senior adviser to HUD’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, making him one of the most qualified water experts in the field today and someone very aware of the need to connect global and local solutions.

Our world is an urban world. Large parts of the population live in low-lying deltas, the safety and well-being of which depend on the hinterland’s riverine basins where the quality of nature, ecology, and water is determined. More often than not, the poorest people live in the most vulnerable places, and climate disasters easily develop into humanitarian disasters and geopolitical conflicts. Locally, survival depends on global action. But, local solutions can also provide answers to larger global challenges.

Water represents man’s most challenging and complex risk. Floods and droughts, pollution, and water conflicts combine in conceivably disastrous ways with rapid urbanization, a growing demand for food and energy, migration, and climate change. The water challenges carry with them the risk of disruptive transitions. Only a better understanding of these risks will allow us to de-risk the world effectively.

Numerous funding initiatives have contributed large amounts toward these issues. Formal development funding related to water has nearly tripled between 2003 and 2014, while across-the-board climate funding is based on the agreement to mobilize an equal amount for mitigation and adaptation. Almost 80 percent of the funds provided for the latter are water-related, generating countless opportunities in the sector. However, as budgets allocated for water-related projects are increasing to meet global needs, another problem becomes clear: how to effectively, adaptively, and swiftly allocate these funds for genuine transformation. It is becoming evident that we lack the tools that enable us to effectively tip the balance.

When we acknowledge that complexity needs to be embraced, we get a better sense of how to deal with it. This understanding can only be advanced when global and local expertise is connected, in an inclusive way and on the ground, where risk is real and urgent. We therefore need a new approach that matches long-term comprehensive planning with short-term innovative interventions; state-of-the-art science, research, and data collection with local stories and facts; and innovation with implementation through collaborations across all sectors and all layers of government, involving all stakeholders— from activists and vulnerable communities to private enterprises and public institutions.

Water is at the heart of our uncertain future. It is mainly through water that we feel the impact of climate change. Of all disasters worldwide, 90 percent are water-related, either floods or droughts. And while 50 percent of the world’s groundwater storage capacity is beyond its tipping point, the quality of surface water everywhere is at risk. Water-related climate risks cascade through food, energy, urban, and environmental systems. Water is essential for our economy as well as for our social and cultural well-being. Water quality affects our future economic and societal prosperity, while water risks—too much or too little—define our societies’ vulnerability. Water is life.—As told to Steve Cimino

Read more of our interviews with experts on water.