Feb 20, 2009

Experts at Aquaterra 2009 Discuss Future of World’s Deltas

Conference in Amsterstam drew more than 600 experts from around the world

The three-day Aquaterra 2009 in Amsterdam attracted more than 600 top experts from around the world. They discussed how best to ensure a sustainable future for the world’s largest deltas. The Aquaterra conference delegates issued a joint closing statement that will be a key topic of discussion at the fifth World Water Forum in March.

Major river deltas and estuaries face greater challenges from urbanization, infrastructure and agriculture development, with more than 80% of the world’s population expected to be living and working in these regions in the near future. The sea level rises and storm water problems associated with global warming will aggravate matters further, and were a clear source of concern among experts at Aquaterra 2009.

Vulnerability of Deltas
Gaele Rodenhuis, chairman of the event, stated: “It became clear at Aquaterra that deltas are characterized by their exceptionally dynamic nature—the place where the fresh water of rivers meets the salt water of sea, the low and high tides, the continuously moving shorelines and sedimentation. Rich clay ground, excellent fishing grounds and strategic locations for transport have turned deltas such as the Nile, Yellow River and Rhine into the heart of their respective nation’s economy and agriculture.” He added that that the delegates concluded: “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.”

While various smart new solutions were presented at Aquaterra, the conference attendees noted the scarce attention being paid worldwide by governments to deltas. This is resulting in inefficient spatial planning and, consequently, an unnecessary loss of nature, drought, fresh water problems and increasing flood risks. According to Rodenhuis, “The conference participants agreed that politicians need to be made far more aware of the issue of delta vulnerability than is currently the case and stressed the necessity for greater governmental involvement.”

Countering Risks and Reducing Damages
With the likely effects of climate change still to come and the foreseen growth of coastal cities, the strain on the dynamic natural system will sharply increase. Solutions are available within the parameters of the natural system itself. 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. New civil engineering solutions were also discussed at Aquaterra, such as Tokyo’s super levees and the dredging of the inner city waters in Djakarta to reduce floods from the Cilliwung river.

Need for Change
The jointly compiled closing statement warned of the massive challenges facing deltas over the next 50 years. More comprehensive assessments of dynamic natural systems are required in order to establish the best measures for climate adaptation. The ad hoc studies that often form the basis for coastal engineering projects need to be replaced by integrated research and real-time monitoring of the entire system. This will allow for a better understanding of how assumed developments such as sea level rises and subsidence are taking place in practice.

The experts in Amsterdam stressed that “building with nature” and using natural processes present promising new ways of coastal engineering. This view is incorporated in the final statement via the slogan “Nature where possible and technology when required.”

Delegates from eight of the world's most important deltas shared their views and experiences at Aquaterra 2009. 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 will be on the global agenda at the fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul in March and at December’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

The next Aquaterra conference will take place in Amsterdam in 2011.