The PBL (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) held a seminar in Rotterdam on 11+12 October 2022 dedicated to the future of river basins and deltas, which I attended on behalf of the Bassetti Foundation. The specific deltas discussed were the Rheine-Meuse, Mississippi and Yangtze, with the seminar rationale being that river basins and deltas are crucial for a sustainable future for the environment of our planet as well as for a sustainable economic development.
Whereas once water systems provided the means for industrial growth, the industrial revolution reversed this relationship, creating the conditions that economic and urban development increasingly guided and adapted the water and ecosystems of rivers basins and deltas, creating a series of problems:
Industrial and economic development has objectified and rationalized nature, leading to changes of the physical characteristics of rivers basins and deltas. Pollution, dike construction and river-narrowing, damming, land reclamations and dredging has led to a dramatic loss of biodiversity, rising water levels and increasing flood risks, salt intrusion and growing problems for fresh water supply. Land and water use for transport, port development, industrial development and urbanization, has resulted in the fact that river basins and deltas have become main corridors of the fossil economy, making an economic transition necessary in the fight against climate change. This leads to policy and planning having to address two issues, the first of adaptation in order to be able to deal with changes in the environment and climate which already take place, and the second mitigation, in order to avoid accelerating climate change.
This was a rich and varied seminar, with what follows representing just a few of the discussion points:
How can nature-based solutions help to rebalance the natural versus economic development?
Damming causes sediment to be trapped, with 50 – 75 % of sediment flows not reaching the delta causing land erosion. For example, 5000 square KM of land has been lost in the Mississippi delta area.
Deltas are subsiding (predominantly due to groundwater withdrawal but also sand use) faster that sea levels are rising, a demonstration of the need to restructure and rethink both water and sand use.
How much can natural approaches to addressing these problems contribute?
In the Netherlands the historical trend has been to react to problems with massive engineering projects, but more recently the debate has moved towards protecting the landscape in order to protect the country. Recently Delta Commission has been made up of fewer engineers and more scientists.
Environmental uncertainty (flooding risk) brings economic uncertainty, leading to loss of investment.
More water escapes onto the land (water runoff) than ever before, while less water reaches the sea.
Policy and management requires a move away from technical thinking and towards a much broader vision. Knowledge and information should be shared.
Local governance, systems need to cooperate on environmental, social and economic planning.
The deltas are heavily populated, so plans cannot be drawn as if they sit on a blank canvas. Scale, housing, biodiversity and energy transition all need to be integrated into immediate policies.
Planning needs to address the coming 100 years.
Structure should grow out of values and issues (rather than the historical drivers) in an integrated and holistic approach taken on a global level.
Ports are tied into the modern global economy, soya distribution the driver in New Orleans and fossil fuels in Rotterdam as just two examples.
Ecosystems interact, with simultaneous events compounding risk (climate change and human choices).
Critical strategic choices must be made by analysing different futures.
Ecology is not contrary to development.
As regular readers will note, many of these points echo some of the aims proposed within mainstream Responsible Innovation and particularly reflect the interests and problems related to governance championed by the Bassetti Foundation within the field. It does resemble something that President Bassetti refers to as a ‘bureaucratic approach’ however, raising questions about different aims for responsible innovation approaches.
Many things are taken for granted, such as an approach that appears to define a series of problems that have to be resolved. This framing can in itself be seen as limiting, as it does not really open debate about development beyond a discussion between economy and environment (and related social issues). The port of Rotterdam is an economic powerhouse that has been developed over the years based upon a fossil fuel economy, and itself relies on fossil fuel transport and refining for its very survival. Its economic value is enormous within a global trade system and stretches far beyond the borders of the Netherlands and its governance.
The approach adopted here also reflects that reported in Qian Wang and Ping Yan’s chapter in the International Handbook on Responsible Innovation, Responsible Innovation: constructing a seaport in China, a chapter and approach that has been influenced by the same philosophy, squeezed under the title of responsibility within the 5TU Federation of Ethics and Technology based on (and collaborating with) the Dutch 4TU centre. The PBL publication The Geography of Future Water Challenges (free to download here) describes other developments on a global scale, with the last few pages offering some suggestions for ways forward.
I was fortunate enough to take a full day tour of the port after the seminar, including the Maasvlakte 2 development that opened in 2013, organized through a second 150 Year New Waterway seminar held in the days after that of the PBL and during which which I saw the reality of such an approach. The industrial port is operating at full swing, refineries for oils of all types, huge refrigerated warehouses containing foodstuffs, mountains of coal heading to Germany, almost fully automated port areas picking containers from China, but the air is acrid with chemicals. Ships throw out huge plumes of black smoke as they start up their engines. A fellow passenger on the guide bus who lives nearby told me that if the wind is in the ‘wrong’ direction they cannot do their sports training outside in their village.
On the seafront side of the Maasvlakte development sand dunes open to a lovely shallow sea however, designed specifically for kite surfing and packed with people enjoying themselves. There are seals sitting on the beach, nature look out posts, Scottish cattle grazing on a strip of grass that runs between the coast and the port. A full ring of wind turbines offering clean electricity for the automated cranes and transporters. A cruise ship. A lovely sight and a wonder of natural engineering (more sand and natural processes, less concrete).
The natural engineering approach adopted during this development certainly offers advantages, but it is often packaged as compensation for environmental damage (as this governmental website demonstrates). One of the ways that these engineering and economic developments are justified is through evaluation, the worth of nature and its creation in terms of social and environmental capital compared to the damage caused by industrial development.
Dutch governmental websites (such as the one linked above) talk about compensation for nature: The development and use of Maasvlakte 2 has an adverse impact on the sea and nature. Part of the surrounding dune area will also be lost. Under the Natuurbeschermingswet 1998 (Nature Protection Act) the government is obliged to provide compensation for such damage.
The implications of taking such an approach can be felt across the economic and social system here in the Netherlands, part of a negotiation process within which housing, infrastructure and economic needs are addressed in terms of nature protection.
In May 2019 the Dutch Administrative Court of the Council of State ruled that the government’s Nitrogen Action Program was insufficient and would not bring nitrogen pollution levels within agreed parameters, leading to a new law.
The effects of its implimentation in the Netherlands are easy to see, with farmers flying flags upside down in protest against a government that wants to reduce the number of animals held in order to protect the environment but particularly Natura 2000 protected areas, and that has already lowered the speed limit on all motorways to 100 km per hour in order to compensate for the pollution that new house building will produce (a tricky situation here as there is an acute housing shortage, which makes the acute labour shortage more difficult to resolve).
The government aims to buy out farms in sensitive areas to leave the land round these nature areas fallow. The new law is based upon actual nitrogen levels within these nature reserves rather than projected emission levels, with buy outs proposed alongside investment in new lower emission techniques and technologies for farms that are further away from sensitive areas. But farmers have been protesting as they feel they are taking an unfair burden, flying their Dutch flags upside down and taking action to disrupt the economy and governance of the country.
The banks and previous governments have also come in for criticism however, as the favouring of large-scale farming has meant that loans and grants have been easier to find for those following what we might call industrialized farming techniques easier to find.
(Photos of the tour of the port are available below.)