New Delhi: During her recent visit to India along with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the Netherlands’ infrastructure and water management minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen held extensive consultations with the Indian government on water-related issues. In an interview, she talks about what Indian cities could learn from Dutch flood control and water management systems, besides the pace of the Clean Ganga mission.

Edited excerpts:

Water is a serious concern in many Indian cities, and the Netherlands is known for adopting innovative water management measures. River and lake systems across India are heavily polluted, and Shimla is currently in the midst of a water crisis. Based on the Dutch experience, how can human settlements and water bodies co-exist?

This is a global challenge. The United Nations has asked the Netherlands to set up a global centre for excellence on climate adaptation. Nearly 80% of the issues the centre will deal with are related to water. We have asked the Indian government to collaborate with us and help us take the centre’s work forward. We have initiated work in two cities—Rotterdam and Groningen. We are also initiating a global commission to start talking about climate mitigation. The problem of floods and heat stress is increasing in our cities. Nobody has all the right answers, of course, but in the Netherlands, we have some experience with protecting ourselves against flooding. In cities like Rotterdam, for example, we have created these large shallow public squares which function like ‘water parks’, where the public can walk or sit and enjoy when the weather is nice. But when there is sudden and heavy rainfall, these squares function like basins that can store excess water. That’s something Indian cities can do. We have also started giving more room to riverbeds within our cities by making them no-development zones. This is also a solution that Indian cities can adopt.

Indian cities have a huge population. Land, even along river beds, is often seen as too valuable. In Delhi, for example, a metro station has come up on the Yamuna riverbed. Are there any planning or governance tools that Dutch cities have used to manage development and the use of land better?

The community has to make a decision on this. If a city gets flooded every year, there is a huge cost to that. The residents of India’s cities need to decide if it is worth that cost. Also, speaking of land being an expensive asset, the amount of land being taken up by landfills is constantly increasing. India’s cities should start setting up waste to energy plants in all landfills that are less than 10 years old and start reclaiming these land parcels for housing projects.

The Netherlands is offering technical support to the Indian government on the Clean Ganga mission. A major source of pollution in the Ganga is the cities, which dot the river basin, and none of them treat their sewage. Since the ongoing Ganga clean-up is modelled along the Rhine river restoration, how did western Europe deal with the problem of untreated sewage outflow from major cities?

The solution begins with good water quality data that is collected regularly, which is comparable, inter-operable and can be adequately analysed using international benchmarks. It should be possible to show what is in the water at each point on a map. Then, you have a starting point for discussion among various stakeholders. In the Rhine river, we have even developed mobile apps to see water quality in real-time, so that it is possible to fix responsibility.

Recently, water resources minister Nitin Gadkari said that by March 2019, 70-80% of the Ganga will be cleaned. Three years into the Clean Ganga mission, what is your sense of the progress so far?

The Rhine river restoration took at least 20 years. I am convinced India can do it. There is a sense of urgency and the money is also there. But there may not be a specific moment when the Ganga or other rivers will be clean. Keeping them clean would be a continuous and on-going effort. The key is to find mechanisms that are holistic. For example, we have signed an agreement to help in the restoration of one tributary—the Hindon river. We plan to collect the waste to produce electricity and use that electricity to further clean the water. That would create a circular economy and there won’t be any need for the continuous flow of government money. Once the clean-up process is put in place, it can continue because there is a business model. Such projects, which have a business case, must be scaled up and mainstreamed.

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