Professor of Adaptive Delta Management and Senior Specialist in Policy Analysis and River Management at Deltares.
Tell us about your personal life
I am married to Magdalena van den Berg, and we have two sons, Jelle (23) and Olivier (20), who are both studying in Wageningen. With Magdalena, I have just started a project to gain hands-on experience in the areas in which we both work and have an interest, in other words rivers, living with floods and the significance of nature for human well-being. We have bought a house on a plot of land (in a nature conservation area) in a floodplain, which is inaccessible when the water is high.
What is your favourite pastime
I used to be very active musician (I played the flute in the Leiden Sinfonietta orchestra and have just started the alto saxophone) and hope to take it up again in my new living environment. I enjoyed sailing (on rivers, in Zeeland, and once to Norway) and skating and would like to take up recumbent cycling. These are all activities that involve simple interaction between technology and humans and enable you to savour the pure craftsmanship.
What has been the highlight of your career
The word highlight suggests something short-lived: the best thing was probably a compliment from a local government official with a humanities background who told me that he had read a report summarising the Room for the River project, in which I had invested a lot of energy, and had read and understood it all. But thinking more widely, achieving the transition from raising dikes to river expansion was probably what gave me the most satisfaction, together with the implementation of river expansion projects that I helped to devise, such as the Lent and Cortenoever dike expansions, and the Veessen-Wapenveld bypass.
What is your greatest challenge at the moment
Proving successful in this chair, including making a concrete contribution to the transition towards creating stronger (unbreachable) dikes that do not need to be higher or less attractive and ensuring that spatial quality and nature do not suffer at a time when short-term economic considerations threaten to gain the upper hand.
What do you enjoy most about your work
My colleagues and students – to bounce ideas around with. Working together to tackle a problem and becoming increasingly enthusiastic about the issue and potential solutions as we gradually get to grips with it: very inspiring!
Partly because I have been working here with pleasure for quite some time. But also because, based on my experience at mainstream universities, I feel I have something to add and can learn something. One of my contributions is the idea that you do not need to tinker with everything, but that simply observing how something works can sometimes be enough. At the same time, I am learning that this tinkering mentality can actually improve the world in areas that can be merely frustrating for a regular academic. In other words: I often feel the urge to tinker and TU Delft gives me that opportunity.
What subject do you think should be high on the political agenda
It will come as no surprise if I stick with my subject and choose the environment. By that, I mean everything from energy policy to nature conservation. Obviously, climate adaptation is the subject that preoccupies me the most professionally, but that is in any case based on a lost battle in terms of causal effect. The world faces an enormous challenge as a result of demographic development (the elephant in the room) and the economic growth that comes in its wake. It is leading to enormous depletion of natural resources, habitat loss, unparalleled pollution of the world's oceans, etc.
Since most of this is beyond my influence (and that of the Netherlands), I would also like to mention the way that space in the Netherlands has been frittered away. As a nation, we had made a name for ourselves as role models in spatial planning. But decentralisation and increasing disinterest from central government have left us in a terrible mess. I would like to see government take control again, especially since it is only with centralised institutions inherited from the time of French rule (such as the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management) that genuine control at an appropriate scale can really happen. That is something that will be essential in preventing a tragedy of the commons in this field.
Your life philosophy
Something between humanism, with its rationality and humanity, and Buddhism with its inherent respect for nature without the need for dei ex machina. Basically, it comes down to the fact that we all need to try to be as effective as possible in the here and now, without leaving excessive footprints.