Water represents man’s most challenging and complex risk. Floods and droughts, pollution and water conflicts combine in conceivably disastrous ways with rapid urbanization, a growing demand for food and energy, migration, and climate change. Yet water’s connecting and interdependent strength also provides us with a not to be ignored opportunity: we can use water as leverage for impactful and catalytic change.

The water challenges carry with them the risk of disruptive transitions. Only a better understanding of the complex risks will allow us to de-risk the world effectively. Recognizing that water can also be used as leverage helps us find opportunities for real change, for transformative projects everywhere and on every scale. And we have no time to waste if we want to safeguard our planet and our future, and achieve our climate goals, our sustainable development goals, and reach beyond.

Taking up the challenge, the Dutch Water Envoy, the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), and Architecture Workroom Brussels (AWB) have initiated Water as Leverage. In partnership with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and 100ResilientCities, and supported by the UN/World Bank High Level Panel for Water and the Global Center of Excellence on Climate Adaptation (GCECA), we now launch Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities: Asia.

Nowhere on earth are water-related disasters as widespread and costly, both in terms of human life and loss of (social) wealth, as in South and South East Asia. Asian cities account for 83 percent of the population affected by sea level rise. That is why we will test how water can be used as a lever for change in Asia. Chennai in India, Khulna in Bangladesh, and Semarang in Indonesia are our initial test sites, coming from thorough research and on-the-ground collaboration. These three city regions are just the beginning, our list runs longer and we need to and will continue on this quest, with the partnerships we have founded and building on the outcomes of this challenge.

The challenge is to match long term comprehensive urban planning with short term innovative transformations; ambitious climate adaptation plans with bankable projects; developing ever more knowledge of the water system with building more resilient cities; research, design and implementation with inclusive urban alliances. Therefore result driven collaboration is essential, across all sectors, all layers of government, all stakeholders—from activists and vulnerable communities to private and public institutions.

We call on everyone to help us tackle this challenge, to build a global water coalition and together, to use water as leverage for real change.


Water connects all crises. Water-related climate risks cascade through food, energy, urban and environmental systems. But it also works the other way around: a better understanding of these complex interdependent risks allows for a multiplied effect. If everything is linked, a qualitative, well-chosen contribution can cause an effective positive ripple effect. Within this wealth of challenges, interdependencies of water risks make smart, well-designed interventions that have genuine and sustainable impact possible. This offers the opportunity to organize multiplicity and to compile knowledge in order to develop and support reproducible strategies. Water then becomes a lever, an engine to start building reproducible resilience worldwide and on every scale. From risk to reward.

Worldwide, water is the connecting challenge, the number one global risk and the opportunity for transformative and sustainable impact and comprehensive cultural change.
Henk Ovink
Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands
Sherpa to the UN High Level Panel on Water


We strongly believe that the solutions for water problems can be used to structure urbanization, organize urban growth, and vice versa. The five following perspectives are recurring strategies that embody how water can be used as leverage and link the dynamics of water-related processes to innovative forms of urban planning. Best practices of this approach can be found throughout the world. Projects like ‘Room for the River’ in The Netherlands and the ‘Pasig River Rehabilitation’ in the Philippines illustrate this.

Improving the Old with the New
Accommodating urban growth by organizing a new water management system for the whole city
Incremental Upgrading
Facilitating the upgrade of urban living by quick-win investments in water infrastructure
History is the Future
(Re)structuring current and future urbanization by recovering the historical water system
Living with Water
Introducing amphibious systemic water strategies that store, delay, retain or reuse available water
Adapt to Mitigate
Creating space and adapting urbanization tailored to the seasonal dynamics of water bodies

Room for the River, the Netherlands
This natural flood-protection strategy demands that over 30 areas in the Rhine and Meuse delta adapt their land use to allow temporary flooding – and simultaneously make space for qualitative landscapes, recreation, and the local economy. Local governments that could come up with a better alternative while still meeting the requirements, were offered support by the central authorities to work towards an inclusive, broadly supported plan.

Manila Pasig River Rehabilitation Project, the Philippines
Affordable technical solutions and community awareness, starting upstream, one street at a time, created incremental, noticeable positive effects on the quality of the Pasig River tributaries, as well as on Manila’s total flood resistance, public health, and even crime rate.


The challenge is to test, refine, and further develop the five recurring strategies that use water as a lever for transformative impact on concrete locations across South and South East Asia. Three cities have been selected where not only are the water issues urgent, but where there are also pressing infrastructure demands in terms of demographic growth and economic and urban development. By tackling both the dynamics of water-related processes and innovative forms of urban planning, the goal is for these cities to become more resilient.

Nowhere on earth are water-related disasters as widespread and costly, both in terms of human life and loss of (social) wealth, as in South and South East Asia. Over 83 percent of Asia’s urban population will be affected by sea level rise. This is the region where innovative and integrated action is most urgent, but also where it has the greatest potential. We are convinced that Asia’s cascading risks—as they are profoundly intertwined and often relate to water—can also be challenged and organized.

Amount of people affected by sea-level rise. The three-degree world: the cities that will be drowned by global warming, Josh Holder, Niko Kommenda and Jonathan Watts for The Guardian, November 3, 2017.

Desktop research of South and South East Asia, by FABRICations, Deltares and AWB, commissioned by Water as Leverage

As financial demands for water-related projects are increasing to meet global needs, the next question emerges: How should available funds be allocated? Financiers often enter the arena after projects have been developed, often too late to incorporate innovation and always too late to be a partner in the initial development phase of innovative projects and their evaluation methodology. But we need the banks, the financiers, to be part of the coalition from the start, from the inception phase when challenges are identified and projects defined, with the outcome still uncertain. So instead of only focusing on the assessment and approval of finalized ready-made projects, we aim to integrate into our projects an innovative financing methodology that deliberately shapes and realizes qualitative and bankable projects as catalysts for more transformative impact.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has been a partner of the Water as Leverage consortium from day one. AIIB’s mission is to support sustainable projects that are groundbreaking and impactful, and its openness and capacity to deploy innovation to reach the SDGs. Affirming water as leverage allows the AIIB to foster the development of an enhanced and more proactive response to new and complex challenges. Ultimately, a renewed working method offers a way to tackle the urgencies that Asia faces on the large scale as a multitude of smaller projects, respecting them in all their complexity. By joining forces, we collectively contribute to building a sustainable tomorrow.

Asia is at a critical juncture. Its role on the world stage is increasing, but the region now faces new and complex challenges. We will not, and cannot, change the course of the planet alone, but we will step up, alongside other members and partners, to do our part to build a sustainable tomorrow.
Jin Liqun
President of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank


The interdependencies of water challenges can be used to connect crucial requirements for the development of successful, sustainable projects: dynamics of governance, qualitative design, cultural expression, necessary funding, and societal collaboration. Water then functions as leverage for seven goals.

  1. Understand the system
    Obtain local knowledge and pool expertise to define the most suitable project
  2. Adapt the system to the world
    Involve development parties from the start and promote assessment tailored to water and climate adaptation
  3. Share the responsibility
    A new governance model that integrates frameworks of higher authorities with the know-how of local governments
  4. Do more with less
    Build transformative capacity by focusing on recurring challenges and setting up programs
  5. Imagine what does not (yet) exist
    Re-think how we want to live with and manage water
  6. Collectively discuss proposals
    Create public debate and gather social awareness and support
  7. Have real impact on the ground
    Invest in the implementation of the best resilient projects imaginable and build coalitions around them


After an intense period of thorough research, fieldwork, and workshops, the Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities: Asia consortium partnered with the cities of Khulna, Chennai, and Semarang. The partnerships are carefully chosen, based on the explicit articulation of water-, urban-, and climate-related challenges that these city regions have, the strategic position as a pilot for similar cases they could be and, as such, the potential in terms of sustainable solutions and transformative capacity. These three city regions are only a starting point: building on the outcomes of this challenge, a working methodology will be derived and continuously adjusted, as a foundation for following partnerships.

Chennai is the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, located on the southeastern coast of India. Recent immigration has made Chennai the fifth most populous metropolitan area in India. As a consequence, informal peripheral settlements in low-lying coastal areas that lack access to infrastructure and services house many of the recent arrivals. This rapid increase of population also affects the expansion of impermeable soil and failure of the drainage system. Chennai’s position on the southern coast of India, which suffers from land subsidence, makes the region extremely vulnerable to flooding and landslides.

Khulna is part of the largest delta in the world: the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta. Most of the delta is composed of a labyrinth of channels, swamps, lakes, and floodplains and consists predominantly of alluvial soils, making it a very fertile region. Besides direct water issues caused by poor drainage, high baseline water stresses, seasonal river flooding, and sea level rise, the increase in salinity in the Khulna area poses another severe challenge for the sustainable development of the city: crop yields are falling and food prices are rising, threatening the city’s food security and clean water supply.

Semarang is a harbor city in the Indonesian archipelago with a dynamic shoreline, stemming from natural sedimentation processes and man-made extensions. The city has always faced hazards such as drought, land subsidence, landslides, water pollution, and floods, but these are likely to become more severe and frequent as a result of climate change. This will result in higher surface temperatures, an increased rainfall intensity, rising sea levels, extreme weather patterns, and water pollution, creating income fragility, decreased food availability, and migration.

Based on fieldwork in Chennai, in October 2017, done by FABRICations, 100RC and AWB, and commissioned by Water as Leverage. Download full City Report here.

Based on fieldwork in Khulna, in October 2017, done by FABRICations and AWB, and commissioned by Water as Leverage. Download full City Report here.

Based on fieldwork in Semarang, in October 2017, done by FABRICations, Deltares, 100RC and AWB, and commissioned by Water as Leverage. Download full City Report here.


With the water challenges of South and South East Asia as a driver, a unique global alliance has been established. Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities: Asia is the collective initiative of the Dutch Water Envoy, the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam (IABR), Architecture Workroom Brussels (AWB), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Global Center of Excellence on Climate Adaptation (GCECA), and 100 Resilient Cities (100RC), supported by the UN/World Bank High Level Panel on Water. The initiative aims to develop innovative solutions for the existing water challenges in Asia, starting in three pilot cities, and simultaneously elaborating on financial and policy frameworks to support these and future implementations.

Complementarity is what distinguishes this consortium. A water envoy, a cultural platform cum research institute, an urban think tank, a development bank, a climate adaptation center and a resilient cities network team up. The result is a fusion of technical, financial, social and cultural expertise and networks geared towards impactful sustainable implementation. Because only by working together will we be able to strengthen capacity, embrace complexity, challenge our notions and advance our proposals and approaches to meet all qualitative and financial requirements. Together we will be in a better position to unlock much needed funding, help foster better governance, and push for real solutions on the ground. Our shared endeavor, collects, connects, identifies, initiates, guides, guards, monitors and evaluates water resilience projects in order to generate quality, bankability and reproducibility.

Together with you, we wish to make a difference in the way we approach water challenges.

Henk Ovink is the first Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, responsible for advocating water awareness around the world, focusing on building institutional capacity and coalitions among governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector, and NGOs to address the world’s most pressing water issues. Ovink is also Sherpa to the UN/World Bank High Level Panel on Water and Principal for Rebuild by Design, the resilience innovation competition he developed and led for President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force.


The International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam focuses on the quest for resilient and inclusive cities. The IABR produces exhibitions, conferences, films, books, lectures, and debates, while it is also an incubator for innovation. The IABR–Ateliers apply the research by design methodology to real-world problems, are solution-oriented, and insist on applicable results that are actionable and designed to change the status quo.


Architecture Workroom Brussels is a think-and-do tank for innovation in architecture, urban planning, and other fields relating to spatial development. It is helping to create a context for innovation within the practice of design, while simultaneously promoting the role and the meaning of spatial design in the formulation of a crucial innovative response to the social problems inherent to a rapidly urbanizing world.


The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a new multilateral financial institution founded to bring countries together to address the daunting infrastructure needs across Asia. By furthering interconnectivity and economic development in the region through advancements in infrastructure and other productive sectors, the AIIB can help stimulate growth and improve access to basic services.


The Global Centre of Excellence on Climate Adaptation (GCECA) was initiated by UN Environment, the Dutch Government, and NIES Japan and has established partnerships with global organizations, NGOs, governments, financial institutions, knowledge institutions, and businesses to accelerate climate adaptation. The GCECA focuses its activities on those areas where acceleration is most needed: where action is most urgently required and where this is complementary to the work of others.


100 Resilient Cities (100RC), pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, is dedicated to helping cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the twenty-first century. Through its actions, 100RC aims not only to help individual cities become more resilient, but will facilitate the building of a global practice of resilience among governments, NGOs, the private sector, and individual citizens.


Early next year, Water as Leverage for Resilient Cities: Asia will launch its Call for Action, which will invite urban, climate and water experts, architects, engineers, designers, social scientist, economists and financial specialists, affiliated experts and local coalitions to take part in an advanced, design-driven investigation of the water-related urban, social and ecological challenges of South and South East Asia. While the Call for Action hopes to generate bankable design solutions that are applicable across Asia, teams are asked to focus on the three selected heavily affected and vulnerable areas: the city regions of Chennai, Khulna and Semarang. Learning from community members and a diverse range of experts, selected teams will investigate the identified critical city-regions in-depth and propose design-driven solutions to strengthen these regions’ resilience to the water-related challenges of today and, moreover, those that are projected to happen in the future.

In each of the three cities, the call for action will focus on project strategies and design. Teams will test, refine, question or expand the opportunities that are traced and develop scenarios to prompt action. Through research by design, each team will concentrate on real implementation, and thereby nurture action to induce vision. The aim is to develop excellent, innovative, integrated and bankable project proposals that have committed local support by active stakeholder coalitions.

Parallel to this on the ground approach, Water as Leverage will support the teams, help connect the interdependencies or networks and foster a transformative approach-methodology, monitoring and guiding the project proposals in terms of their reproducibility, systemic approach, knowledge production, governance principles, viability and bankability. The aim is to evolve from a landscape of problems to a landscape of solutions.

Stay informed about Water as Leverage and the Call for Action by registering here:

As of 18 June 12:00 CEST it is no longer possible to submit your bid. All submitted bids will receive an e-mail with more information.

6 multidisciplinary teams will be selected to engage in Chennai, Khulna and Semarang and develop transformative resilience projects in the field of water, climate adaptation and urban planning. The Call for Action is the start of an inclusive and comprehensive competitive process to identify the most groundbreaking projects on site and bring them to scale in Asia and the wider world. Interested? Please read our article or download the Setting the Scene document to read more on the challenges of the 3 partner cities.

More information
More information about the 6 winning teams will be available soon on english.rvo.nl/waterasleverage.

For questions or more information, e-mail us at wal@rvo.nl!