Hanseatic Days and Conference in Kampen

Water is at the heart of almost all global issues

 

With 225,000 visitors, the 37th International Hanseatic Days in the Dutch town of Kampen have been a great success. One of the components of the event was the Hanseatic Conference in the municipal Stadsgehoorzaal theatre on June 16th, where keynote speakers Herman Wijffels (economist, advisor on sustainable development), and Henk Ovink (Special envoy for international water affairs of the Netherlands) addressed themes like sustainability, the circular economy, water safety, and climate change.

Why is water so important? Special Dutch envoy for international water affairs, Henk Ovink, has the answer. “We worry about food, energy, migration, climate change, urbanisation and the economy, and water is at the heart of all of these issues. Without water there is neither energy nor food.”

According to Mr. Ovink, in the coming decades millions of people could die of either a shortage or a surplus of water, and the wars that might be the result of both situations. “Climate refugees are actually water refugees. We only think about water in a secondary way, when it could be too late, but water connects everything.”

That’s why we should start with water when we want to address the challenges humanity and the planet are increasingly facing. Ninety percent of all the natural disasters that hit the Earth are water-related. A scary thought. People will feel the impact of climate change most profoundly by water. Small island states will disappear, if we do not deliver on the promises that were part of the Paris Climate Agreement.

‘Water is at the heart of everything, and still, we think about it in a secondary way’

Water is causing despair all over the globe, and has even become ‘a weapon of mass destruction’ in the words of Mr. Ovink. “We are to blame too, as part of it is a result of bad water management.” He quotes a report the G7-countries published three years ago, saying that ‘climate change is a matter of national security, and at the heart of it is water’. “5,000 people in Africa die every day because of health issues directly related to water. However, if you bring water to an African community, women start to work in a more entrepreneurial way, and children can go to schools where sanitation is available. Emancipation and equality grow. As soon as you take that away, the vulnerable people of this world will lose out.”

Mr. Ovink stresses that an increasing number of people choose to live close to the water, without realising that – as the World Economic Forum has predicted in a report – water is the number one risk we will be facing in the next decade. “Investing in those risky places also means that water becomes a threat in a financial perspective (…). If finance and economics are driving change, the poor will be paying the price. Our failure to adapt and mitigate, combined with extreme weather events, and rising food prices, are all one on one related to water.”

The Dutch special envoy thinks we should come up with a comprehensive approach to deal with those interrelated and interdependent risks, bringing the world together in its origin, and supporting mitigation, and adaption. “It might be the right step forward, but then we’d better hurry.”

Looking back is not an option. Working together is. Mr. Ovink think we should be inspired by the collaboration between the Hanseatic cities, or any collaboration for that matter.

Knowledge of yesterday
There is a problem though. Our system of governance, interaction, finance, the way we allocate funding, rules, and regulation is based on the science and knowledge of yesterday, not on the future. Therefore we ought to bypass it and move towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the Paris Climate Agreement the participating countries promised the world to invest heavily in adaption and mitigation, but only a very small percentage has been spent so far. “If you invest now in a better process, more knowledge, better data, collaboration, engagement, doing things together, the solutions in the end will be much better. We need the millions to spend the billions, but we don’t.”

That is because we never talk about upfront investments in each other, and linear approaches are still dominating our business cases. “How are we going to add value if we don’t find a better way to collaborate? We need a comprehensive approach and projects in a circular range, and to connect the heart and the mind. In the short-term we should connect the incidents we are dealing with, leading up to a long-term approach. All involved should sit at the same table in a collaboration that adds value, accept accountability and be transparent.”

Transparency is critical, underlines Mr. Ovink. “This process is about learning, so make mistakes, and learn from them. The faster, the better. Again and again. That builds capacity. And if we want it to be leapfrogs, we need design and innovation to be part of this all connecting approach.”

Entrepreneurship
In Kampen, Herman Wijffels, former CEO of Rabobank, ex-chairman of the Social Economic Council, former Dutch representative at the World Bank, and professor at Utrecht University, addresses circular economics and pro-active climate management from the perspective of entrepreneurship. He emphasises the issues we are facing, possible solutions, and the role of business and entrepreneurship in creating a sustainable society. But he starts with ‘the basis of life’, our planet.

While showing a picture of our blue planet, Mr. Wijffels says: “First of all we see a lot of water, but only since we travel in space we have this perspective on our globe. To be exact, 71 percent of our planet is covered with water, and therefore the main building block of life itself. Dealing in a proper way with water is a crucial element in that respect. It is also clear that we move many products, commodities, and people by water transport. A major part of the global population live in deltas close to the sea, which is also important regarding the possible consequences of global warming.”

Earth is our life-support system, and rich in resources. But these resources are not unlimited, some are even finite. We should use them as efficiently as possible. We harvest natural resources, manufacture products and at the end of the lifecycle we dispose of them, but this linear system is the reason why we are running into problems, according to Mr. Wijffels.

He is convinced we should reorganise our way of live, and thus our economy, in order to stay within the boundaries and capacities of our planet. “We use the resources of a planet and a half and approach the boundaries of what our planet can take.” The success of the industrial revolution, and world population growth have already caused a degradation of the so-called carrying capacity of the planet, as we have lost huge amounts of agricultural land, biodiversity, species, and also fish in the oceans for example. “Therefore we should stay within the limits of the planet, and in order to do so we need to make a transition from a linear to a circular, and preferably (where possible) local economy. My idea is to develop systems in which nutrients, and resources can and will be re-used.”

‘We ought to start thinking how we can embed the natural ecosystems in life itself’

Nothing should go to waste anymore. More and more people do agree, but sometimes we still add linear elements (fertilisers, chemicals, etc.) to for example a basically biological food system. “We ought to start thinking from the perspective of how we can maintain the natural ecosystems we are part of, and embed them in life itself.” He stresses the importance of shared value creation in three dimensions: value for people, the planet (use resources much more efficiently), and consequently the economy. “That is the trademark within which businesses should operate”, combined with more cooperation in supply chains, and a changing role of social business.

 

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