Henk Ovink

Fotografie: “©️ Cynthia van Elk | Water as Leverage”

Henk Ovink is a Dutch special envoy to the United Nations and flood expert. In 2015, he was appointed as the first Water Ambassador of the Netherlands. Ronald Wielinga talked with Henk among others about Entrepreneurship on July 16, 2021.

You were appointed as a water envoy in 2015. Can you tell us about your background? How did you become an envoy? 

Although my parents are no longer with us, I always mention them. I am the son of two extraordinary people who are at the heart of my work today. They were, and are, extremely important to me. My father was an architect, like his father and grandfather before him. My father was not only an entrepreneur but also a true engineer. He was born in 1920 and was unable to attend university due to World War II. His father died before the war, which meant he had to take over the business and provide for his family at an early age. After World War II, he went to TU Delft to become an architect as well. He had to invent himself from a young age. He was an inventor in his architecture as well—a true engineer, but with a social aspect. His focus was always on the human aspect. I think that’s why he suited my mother so well. She was an activist, even though the word probably didn’t exist when she was born in 1926. She was one of the first female headmasters after World War II and always stood up for everything and everyone, particularly the most vulnerable. I inherited those values from her. Maximum ambition—nothing is impossible; but you have to do it together— you cannot leave anyone behind, including those who cannot speak for themselves or make themselves heard. After VWO [pre-university education], I studied math, art, architectural engineering, and landscape architecture, so my background is a weird mix of engineering and creative subjects. I started my own company straight out of university. It was a logical choice, given the environment in which I grew up. I am now 53; had I known then what I know now, I am sure I would have made different choices. I regret nothing, but the environment you grow up in largely determines your choices later in life. I have spent half of my career working in my own company and the private sector, and the other half working for the government. I always combined my work with research and teaching, both in the Netherlands and abroad. In 2007, I became the Director of Spatial Planning & Vision, Design and Strategy at VROM. I was in charge of the knowledge portfolio. The Balkenende IV cabinet had an ambitious mandate, and 20% cuts had to be made. 

That must have been hard for you—having to say goodbye to people, especially when you always want to do everything with everyone. How did you deal with that?

That’s a good question because it touches directly on how we dealt with that. An organization comprises people working together and developing, and budget cuts should not result in those people and the organization coming to a halt. In the end, budget cuts should also always be about development. It wasn’t about the 20% we had to cut, but about providing space for everyone’s development. In the end, through a dynamic process, we were even able to make room for new people. You have to be careful not to have cutbacks continuously looming over people and the organization like the sword of Damocles Based on the plan and the certainty that the increased dynamism will always cover the cutbacks, you can invest in each other and the tasks you face. It was crucial not to allow ourselves to be paralyzed but to look beyond the austerity horizon.

What did you do after VROM [Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment]?

After several mergers, including between VROM and the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, I served as acting Director-General of the Directorate for Spatial Planning and Water Management, the greatest job in the government—a powerful, inspiring and connecting combination of space and water. Then Hurricane Sandy ravaged the east coast of the United States, and I was asked to help with the reconstruction of New York and New Jersey as part of Obama’s task force. I worked there for a few years, initiating all kinds of fantastic projects and enjoying adventures across the ocean.

In 2014, while I was still working for Obama, Ministers Schultz (Minister of Infrastructure & Environment) and Ploumen (Minister of Foreign Aid & Trade) asked if I wanted to become water envoy. They wanted to establish a joint approach to water internationally, together with Minister Kamp (Minister of Economic Affairs). Nobody had ever heard of a water envoy—myself included— but the idea behind it was to represent the Dutch government around the world, in all areas of water, using water as a lever for sustainable development, climate action, trade, diplomacy and more. Diplomatic positions are usually for four years, but because it was an experiment, when we started in March 2015, we agreed on two three-year periods with an evaluation of the envoy after every three years—and we did.

Our ambition was and is to work on global water security and targeted climate adaptation action with a strengthened Dutch commitment through three prime focus areas:

First of all, working to improve global water awareness. It is low and desperately requires improvement because there can be no action without insight, knowledge and capacity, let alone action that also adds value. Everyone needs to work on water awareness; politicians, decision-makers and investors; professionals both inside and outside the water sector; municipalities who are hit the hardest by water disasters—too much, too little and too dirty; the most vulnerable parties, often excluded, but still at the front lines of climate change and water woes; NGOs, scientists and businesses; children, girls first.   Improving water awareness starts with knowledge and stories, making data meaningful by connecting insight, analytics and data to places and personal environments. We need to work with everyone, from schoolchildren in Chile and residents of the slums of Chennai to presidents and prime ministers, bankers and entrepreneurs.  We need to start talking to people everywhere about water and its value, and what it means to them and their environment, economy and society. Through the High Level Panel on Water, we pulled water back out of the trenches and into the spotlight for the UN and the global community. We are using the results to build coalitions of companies, NGOs and governments through the Valuing Water Initiative. With the PBL, we studied the geography of future water challenges by looking past all interests and assignments and taking water as the connecting element. That insight still leads to new perspectives on how we can truly make the world a better place with water.

My second assignment is “post-disaster” future-proof reconstruction after floods, droughts, pollution, conflict and more. However, I prefer working hard on prevention worldwide to help our society get ahead of the damage. For example, after the flooding in Peru, I worked with the government and local population to firmly institutionalize that reconstruction with a law, a fund, and a task force on the one hand, and to find local solutions and opportunities in coalitions of smaller organizations and NGOs on the other. Water plays a crucial role in peace and security, and working on water diplomacy where it can connect parties and where the water approach can be part of the key is, therefore, crucial, complex and inspiring.
We have to turn the tide to meet the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is only possible in leaps and bounds, using innovations that initiate change through broad social coalitions. Water is the leverage for these transitions. Investing in water has a trickle-down effect on all SDGs and is key to impactful climate action. Innovation helps accelerate and provide the opportunity to see what needs to be done as an opportunity and scale it up.

My third and final assignment is focused on that innovation, renewal and acceleration—on increasing the impact. Water and climate change are the big deal breakers for billions of people worldwide. How can we use water and climate action as a stepping stone to a better future and as the start of a rippling effect of sustainable, inclusive and integral change? We are behind worldwide, repeating past mistakes, full well knowing that with the Paris Agreement and the SDGs, our reference should not be the past but the future. Change isn’t easy, and reinventing yourself is even more complicated. Vested interests and ingrained patterns keep us stuck, focused on the past and the disasters that have befallen us. The perspective needs to change; to the future, facing those complex tasks head-on, with a focus on embracing them and understanding the dependencies and the strength, will and ability to take innovative and proactive action on projects and programmes that can turn the tide, based on the values of water. Water as leverage—innovations that can change the world and turn the tide. Water is the key.

If I am not mistaken, your six-year term is now up, but you are still a water envoy. How does that work? Will you stay on as water envoy?

That’s a good question, and I don’t really have an answer for you. At the end of my first term, I was evaluated by the Adviescommissie Water. The main conclusion was that having and maintaining a water envoy is of great added value for the Netherlands and the world, provided that the right political, administrative and financial conditions are in place, both for the many initiatives and the follow-up and implementation. That means a clear focus, follow-up on actions and strengthening the organization. My second term ended in March 2021, at which point I was evaluated again. The second evaluation was conducted by ABD TOP-Consult. They interviewed more than 50 people and organizations from all over the world. The evaluation clearly showed that full commitment to a water envoy is a no-brainer for the Netherlands, and that this approach should be continued in the future. How we will do that depends strongly on future political commitment. What is certain is that with the second UN summit on water in 2023—the first since 1977, with the Netherlands as co-chair together with Tajikistan—and the connection between the water approach and climate, and with the follow-up of the Climate Adaptation Summit, the Dutch commitment to water worldwide for the SDGs, etc., the continuation of an instrument such as the water envoy can mean an important and distinctive commitment by the Netherlands in and for the world.

If it’s okay with you, I’d like to discuss entrepreneurship now. Many innovations started in the Netherlands. Making an impact with those innovations is a complex matter, however. Where do you think the greatest opportunities lie in terms of achieving economic impact?

That’s a tough question—there are many factors at play. But I believe that there are plenty of opportunities for the Netherlands. The Dutch water technology sector consists of many parties, most of which are SMEs. There are no Dutch companies that can match the scale of Veolia, for example, and there don’t need to be. In the past, such as through the Rembrandt Water initiative, we have looked at how to increase mass in the water sector together, including a relevant role for government. In that same light, it is also interesting to consider Mariana Mazzucato’s perspective on how government should work with the private sector to achieve common goals. It’s not about government vs private sector, it is about working together. That creates space for modernization and innovation. It does, however, require a different commitment to innovation on the part of the government. With the top sector, we are now committed to upscaling the water technology sector and approach. Mazzucato’s mission-oriented approach is resonating in Europe. Her research and vision show how relevant the government is to the conditions required for innovation. The one cannot exist without the other. I am curious what Mariana would have thought of Rembrandt Water, now fifteen years ago. The water technology biotope has incredible potential. It begs the question of why we are still unable to achieve more scale and mass. I don’t have a simple answer to that, but I think we need to better facilitate and reinforce the biotope. A reliable government that sets ambitious goals is crucial to achieving that. The key is to create a collaborative dynamic in which government goals are realized while mitigating risks to the market, without wasting taxpayer money or blocking healthy market competition.
We now have a programme that focuses on increasing exports from the water technology sector (WTEX10). The results of this track can serve as a basis for strengthening the sector, the public-private partnerships, financing structures, innovations and, last but not least, impact because improving the lives of the most vulnerable is essential.
At the same time, I also see something wrong with the prioritization and cooperation among parties. There is often too much finger-pointing and not enough collaboration. The whole approach is quite typically Dutch. The top sectors focus on the nine most important sectors for the Dutch economy. Despite their importance, they started with a volunteer in charge of each top sector. It doesn’t get much more Dutch than that. You would expect, if these are the nine driving sectors behind our economy, that you would fully commit to them financially, in terms of regulation and governance, and put both a CEO and a minister in charge. With Thecla Bodewes at the top, an amazing sector taking the world by storm and a new cabinet just around the corner, it should be possible. We could turn one into a thousand. If we create a storm, it will move everyone. If you only stir a little, everything circles around the point, and people start focusing more on each other instead of on the goals, results and chances for reproduction. We have something very valuable on our hands with this sector; valuable to the Paris goals and the SDGs, as well as to the Netherlands and individual entrepreneurs, researchers and NGOs.

My last interview was with Menno Holterman. He wondered how, as a water envoy, you can ensure that Dutch technology and entrepreneurship are not left behind. How do you view that?

I include Dutch water technology and our broad knowledge and expertise on water in everything I do—be it delta management, finance or governance. I am the Dutch government’s international representative for water. We have an important sustainability and economic agenda in which water—and, by extension, the water sector—plays a crucial role. As I said before, investment in water helps us achieve the SDGs and the Paris Agreement; it is the catalyst for an inclusive, more equal, safe and sustainable world, with limited climate change and resilient communities and ecosystems. Those goals are paramount; the contribution by experts, companies, financiers, governments and institutional partners must be focused on involving everyone and everything to catch up radically, because we are nowhere near where we need to be—we have to change course. The Dutch water top sector is an inspiring partner in this process, for me and the entire world.

Will we—the private sector, government, knowledge institutes and NGOs—succeed in working together to maximize that ambition collectively? It’s hard to say; there is still a huge gap there.  The result is that we are putting out fires and patching up new disasters every day. That should not be confused with strategy. As a government, we need to look at ourselves here as well. We need to make different choices and make significant investments, with room for venture capital, among other things. The Dutch government is hesitant in that regard. We are good at bagging a specific opportunity for one company or a collective. We need to be much more committed to the big tasks, more mission-driven. Entrepreneurship is always collective in the water sector, never one at a time. Menno Holterman’s work in India is a good example of that. He always deploys a collective on a large scale for an integrated, systemic approach. Small solutions here and there won’t cut it; you have to make fundamental changes to the system and change course, together! I fully agree with him on that. As far as I’m concerned, this is what we—the Dutch government and the private sector—need to commit to fully. Scale up the good. If we do that, we can play a crucial role with our companies, knowledge partners, technology, culture and approach worldwide. That is, of course, easier said than done.

Where do you see the value and role of the WaterCampus in this?

The WaterCampus is extremely important.  It is a safe place where players of all sizes can come together; a place where daring and curiosity, leading experts and innovations can grow and find opportunities for implementation, replication and scale-up in the market and society. Impact. The WaterCampus is a gem; you should not only cherish it, but you should also aim to make it big. The only way to change the world is, as I said before, to turn one into a thousand. The analysis is very simple, and the IPCC’s 2019 ‘Climate Change and Land’ Report makes it very clear: nearly all our global investments—more than 90%— increase climate change, and the way we do that increases our vulnerability. That’s two strikes already. If we do not turn this thing around as if our lives depend on it, things will go horribly wrong. And WaterCampus—in conjunction with the water sector as a whole—is a gem in that context; it can start there. But we will have to choose to make it happen, together. It is about commitment, consistency and continuity. If we do not deliver on that together, it will remain nothing more than ‘a nice place’, and a nice sector with great people. That is never enough and it would be a real shame. On the bright side, we have an opportunity! That drives me every day. If it has to happen, it can be done. Together. Right now!

Interested to learn more about entrepreneurship at WaterCampus?
Please contact Ronald Wielinga our manager entrepreneurship via +31 6 121 38 876 or Ronald Wielinga.