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Aquaterra Conference Examines River Delta Issues

“Governance” was one of the buzzwords at Aquaterra 2009, the second edition of the world forum on delta and coastal areas, which took on February 10 through 12 in Amsterdam’s RAI Conference Centre. Governance meaning: who is in charge? Who makes the decisions about water management and risk management?

As the three-day event, which brought together more than 600 experts – including civil engineers, dredging companies, contractors, consultants, project developers, water companies, knowledge institutes, financial institutions and insurance companies, governments and NGOs – progressed, the consensus was that governance does not mean government alone. We all bear responsibility in the decision-making process about deltas, water management and risk planning.

We being the stakeholders, NGOs, local, regional, national and international governing bodies as well as experts.
The jumping off point for discussion, introduced by Dr. Gaele Rodenhuis, chairman of Aquaterra, and master moderator Alex Kirby, former environmental correspondent of BBC News, was a study conducted by Deltares, a newly-founded Dutch knowledge institute (www.deltares.nl) comprising WL | Delft Hydraulics, GeoDelft, TNO Soil and Groundwater Unit and the Netherlands Department of Public Works and Waterways.

The report - Towards Sustainable Development of Deltas, Estuaries and Coastal Zones - was an evaluation of eight densely-populated and economically developed at-risk deltas: the Yellow River Delta in China, Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta in Bangladesh, Ciliwung River Delta in Indonesia, Nile River Delta in Egypt, Rhine River Delta in the Netherlands, Mississippi River Delta in the United States, and California Bay Delta in the United States.

No Blueprint Exists

Representatives from all these delta areas were present at the conference and provided insight into their own deltaic circumstances. They concluded that governance of deltas is very complex and no uniform blueprint exists that can be applied to all deltas. Nonethe­less, the delegates pleaded for global recognition of their mutual vulnerability and the need for sustainable development. This was expressed in the Aquaterra statement, which is on the global agenda at the fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey in March and at December’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.

From the opening panel onwards, the diversity of people and ideas was obvious. The members represented government, science, researchers and universities: Peter Goodwin, professor of Hydrology and Director at the Center for Ecohydraulics Research at the Idaho Water Center (USA), Kala Vairavanmoorthy, professor at UNESCO IHE, Roger Halcrow professor at Cardiff School of Engineering in Wales, David Waggonner, Partner in Waggonner & Ball Architects in Louisiana USA, and Dr. Eelco H. Dylkstra, a medical doctor and professor of International Emergency Management at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

What also became clear from the panel and other presentations was the great degree of cooperation that already exists among water experts. For instance, since 2006 Dutch urban planners, water managers and landscape architects have been sharing technological expertise with interested parties, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and urban planners in New Orleans. A stimulating discussion on planning and urban design and water management was guided by moderator Dale Mor­ris, an economic advisor at the Netherlands Embassy in Washing­ton DC, between David Waggonner, a native of New Orleans and landscape architect, Paul Farmer, president of the American Planning Association, and Piet Dircke, a Dutch engineer and Program director of the Water Division of Arcadis.

Arcadis, Florida and the Everglades

This type of dialogue is also going on between Arcadis and the State of Florida, where a consultancy agreement with South Florida Water Management Board, which regulates areas such as the Everglades, has just been signed.

Indeed, worldwide solutions are being sought within the parameters of the natural system itself. Other examples include restoring some of the natural sedimentation of the Mississippi River, preserving mangrove forests along the coast of Bangladesh, and reclaiming land along the Dutch coast by semi-natural beach nourishment known as the Sand Engine. New civil engineering solutions were also discussed, such as Tokyo’s super levees and the dredging of the inner city waters in Djakarta to reduce floods from the Cilliwung River.

Day 2 brought this message home as the focus homed in on “Actual Practice”. Stephen Bradford, CEO of the Port of Melbourne gave a rousing talk on the ups and downs of getting approval to deepen Melbourne Harbour. Australia is country of extreme environmental awareness and so any dredging activities come under severe scrutiny. By listening to the public, and reaching out with educational programs also aimed at schoolchildren, the port was able to plead its case to the public – and in the courts – successfully.

One of the ironies of the discussions around Melbourne, but also about projects in the UK, such as the Severn Barrage as presented by Professor Roger Falconer and Yaver Abidi, an engineer at Halcrow, is the complexities of “environmental protection and awareness”. What seems environmentally correct in one situation in fact turned out to be environmentally incorrect for another set of circumstances. As we weigh the problems associated with climate change and rising sea levels and contemplate using alternative energy, how do we deal with placing windmills at sea which may disturb the seafloor and marine life? Two environmentally sound goals at loggerheads with each other. Surely this will be the stuff of future conferences.

The Vulnerability of Deltas

Still, at present, as the conference delegates concluded, although water experts and maritime engineers are talking among themselves, a broader platform is needed. It is hoped that this conference and others like it will sound the alarm over the lack of global recognition for the vulnerability of delta regions and estuaries, and the need to take action now.

The delegates concluded that “unbridled coastal urbanization, reclamation and port development threaten natural dynamics and are leading to major problems such as floods, erosion, polluted estuaries and a scarcity of fresh water supply for drinking water and agriculture.”
According to the experts in Amsterdam, governments are not paying sufficient attention to the need for integrated research and real-time monitoring of the entire water system. They stressed that “building with nature” and using natural processes present promising new ways of coastal engineering. This view is incorporated in the final statement of Aquaterra via the slogan: “Nature where possible and technology when required”.


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