Improving water safety and global prosperity: Preparedness, participation and return


In January of this year I visited the Mexican state of Tabasco–a state crossed by rivers and facing the Gulf of Mexico. The state’s population has doubled over the past 30 years and its economy relies heavily on oil and natural gas resources. It has its challenges as well: unemployment, poverty and a lack of resources.

But through all this runs one challenge that impacts all the others: the increasing risk of flooding. The Mexican government created a flood control programme after severe floods in the past. But with construction under way, disaster struck again. In 2007 floodwater covered 70% of the state and affected over a million people.

The situation in Tabasco is different from my own country, the Netherlands. But we share the pressing need to live safely with water and to reduce the risk of flooding. We are both becoming more vulnerable to water-related disasters due to the effects of climate change. Both of our countries need reduced flood risk and better integrated water management for our people’s safety and prosperity. And that is why we have been working closely together on this issue.


But how do we practically reduce risks? The answer may differ from place to place. But reducing risk starts with a focus on preparedness. This urges us to put policies and governance systems in place that reduce the impact of floods, droughts and water pollution. It eases the repetitive burden of repairing damaged infrastructure. Preparedness eases response, with solid evacuation plans and early warning systems. And it urges us to make water a vital element of urban and economic planning.

For the Netherlands, this has been the latest step in our centuries-old dealings with water. Nationwide norms for water safety have been established, together with evacuation plans and principles for “waterproof” urban development. By working together with the state of Tabasco we have refined our approach, while contributing to improving the safety and prosperity of others.


Our approach is now enacted into law under the Dutch Delta Programme. But rather than being the end of a legislative process, it is the beginning of a cultural one. All levels of government are currently implementing it. In doing so, they are encouraged to involve stakeholders and citizens. Their participation is key to the search for sustainable local solutions. Water literally flows across institutional boundaries, so participation and collaboration are key to its management. It also raises risk awareness among citizens, something a recent OECD study on Dutch water policy concluded needs constant vigilance. When it comes to enabling society, the Netherlands is eager to reach out to others and learn in our turn.


Preparedness not only requires the participation of all stakeholders, including the private sector. It also requires solid financing, since every measure has a price tag. Increased preparedness requires more private investment, which in turn requires better analysis of the costs and the benefits. We know prevention pays off: every dollar spent on it adds seven dollars to the economy–that is real added value. But the more long-term, complex, integrated and regional plans and projects are, the more difficult cost-benefit analysis becomes. This inhibits private investment and, consequently, progress.

We need to create an enabling environment for investment and financing decisions, for accountability through transparency and sound methods of cost-benefit analysis, monitoring and evaluation, as well as ensuring the capacity for good water management. Viable, credible and accountable institutions and governance that drive the delivery of water management should be put in place in order to achieve sustained financing for water related investments. But to make all of this happen, a long-term perspective with a realistic time frame is needed: the Dutch Delta Programme and the accompanying Delta Fund have a time frame until 2050.

International collaboration

Preparedness is a global need, so we must have more global collaboration to make it work. The Netherlands fully supports the development of broad, horizontal Recommendations on Water by the OECD, helping countries and regions to be prepared and to improve the quality of policy and governance. To share issues and solutions, the Netherlands also is co-organising a worldwide Delta Coalition. Our goal is to add value to each other’s safety and development in practical ways. I am delighted that Colombia, France, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam have already joined and I look forward to others joining as well.

I see it as my personal goal to promote preparedness–and everything that comes with it–everywhere I go. Because it is the key toward a safe, resilient and prosperous future, not only in Tabasco or the Netherlands, but worldwide.


OECD Programme on Water Governance 

Water Governance Initiative

The water challenge: OECD's response

OECD Observer articles on Water

OECD work on the Netherlands

OECD Forum 2015 Issues

OECD Observer website

‌‌‌‌Melanie Schultz van Haegen

Melanie Schultz van
Minister of
Infrastructure and the
The Netherlands

© OECD Yearbook 2015


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