‘Integrating biodiversity into water solutions can both strengthen water management and address biodiversity challenges,’ states Nico Tillie from TU Delft. During the Waterproof 2024 event organised by Partners for Water, Nico co-hosted a deep dive session into biodiversity and water issues. We spoke with him and discussed the importance of biodiversity in water projects, how to integrate it, and what he achieved during the deep dive session.

As a landscape architect, researcher and lecturer at the Urban Ecology & Ecocities Lab at TU Delft, Nico works daily on integrating biodiversity into landscape and water solutions. During Waterproof 2024, he and his colleague Rosa de Wolf held a deep dive session on incorporating biodiversity in addressing water challenges. Below, he explains how the water sector can embrace this important component for water solutions.

Nico Tillie – Photo by Peter Venema.

The Importance of biodiversity

Our water quality, coastal defences and groundwater levels, among other things, depend on ecosystems, which can only provide their services if there is sufficient biodiversity,’ explains Nico. Yet, when solving water problems, vegetation and biodiversity are often overlooked in the water cycle. Nico: ‘It is crucial that biodiversity forms a clear part of the approach when addressing water-related challenges; both for civil engineering and Nature-based Solutions.’

‘The water-biodiversity nexus has implications not only for water issues but also for food, CO2, and other climate-related issues,’ Nico adds. ‘By approaching water challenges more broadly and integrating biodiversity into the water cycle, the benefits become of all these interfaces become more apparent.’

Understanding the local system

‘Biodiversity is not only about the richness of species but also about habitat variety and genetic diversity. Together, they form a complex system.’ Nico explains that in order to develop biodiversity-focused water solutions, it is important to understand the local system as a whole and adapt solutions as much as possible to the local climate and water conditions. But how exactly do you do that as a water engineer, for example?

Nico: ‘Understanding the local system can be done by initially mapping the water system and its associated vegetation, and then the surrounding habitat and local species. From that starting point, you can search for relevant solutions.’ He indicates that it is very valuable to make use of local knowledge, ecologists, and multidisciplinary teams in the process.

Understanding the local system can be done by initially mapping the water system and its associated vegetation, and then the surrounding habitat and local species.

Landscape Architect

Nico Tillie

Pattern language

‘What will further promote biodiversity-focused water solutions is using  clear and unambiguous ‘language’ when talking about these themes”, says Nico. ‘At Delft University of Technology, we have developed a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that helps water professionals better understand local ecosystems and biodiversity-related processes. In this course, professionals not only learn substantively about this theme, but they also become acquainted with the so-called ‘pattern language’. This is a common, easy-to-understand language used for designing solutions. As a result, people from various backgrounds can work together effectively on biodiversity and water issues.’

From April, you can find the developed MOOC on the TU Delft website.

Deep dive session at Waterproof

‘Pattern language acts as a bridge between ecological and hydrological knowledge,’ explains Nico. He demonstrated this during the Biodiversity Deep Dive Session that he led with his colleague Rosa Wolf at Waterproof 2024. They presented a case study to the participating ecologists, water engineers, and other water professionals about an arid city in Mexico with water problems. The participants were challenged to find a solution using biodiversity as the starting point. ‘After mapping the water system together, the participants were able to jointly identify relevant applications,’ he adds explains.

Nico also showed the participants a case in which he used so-called ‘solution cards’. He says: ‘When we have similar design sessions with stakeholders, we support them with solution cards that present possible applications in a way that is understandable to everyone. This enables stakeholders from diverse backgrounds to jointly comprehend the water system and determine which applications are necessary to ensure biodiversity plays a central role in solving the problem.’ After the deep-dive session, he received a lot of positive feedback from the participants. ‘The people seemed to really understand and get a better grasp on ecosystems and biodiversity!’

Nico Tillie presenting at Waterproof – Photo by Peter Venema.

Fundamentally integrating Biodiversity

“For me, biodiversity is an essential part of the water cycle because it can both strengthen water management and address biodiversity challenges. Looking ahead, I hope that this cyclical and systemic approach to biodiversity will become a fundamental part of technical solutions,” Nico says. Reflecting on the positive responses he and his colleague received during Waterproof 2024, he is already taking crucial steps towards that integrated future.

‘Deep listening, system approaches and embracing biodiversity.’ Are these the key elements to taking the next steps to improve global water security? This question and many more were discussed by almost 400 international water professionals during the Waterproof 2024 event, organised by Partners for Water on 6 February in Utrecht. The event facilitated a dialogue to fast-track sustainable water management. “It’s time to shift from talking to action.”

“Today is about action and matchmaking” said Liliane Geerling, programme coordinator of Partners for Water. Together with Water Envoy Meike van Ginneken and moderator Tracy Metz, she kicked off the long awaited Waterproof 2024 event. Through panel discussions, networking and deep dive sessions, water professionals with a wide range of backgrounds, from the public and private sectors, NGOs and knowledge institutions would outline the next steps for improving global water security. Liliane: “Let’s focus on collaboration and dare to zoom out and look at the whole system, in order to realise a net gain rather than make things less bad.”

Liliane Geerling, Tracy Metz & Meike van Ginneken – Photo by Peter Venema.

As part of the Dutch water sector, it’s essential to establish connections with partner countries on an equal basis, ensuring that we not only share our knowledge but also remain open to learning from other nations and local stakeholders.

Water Envoy

Meike van Ginneken

Biodiversity, Water Technology and Social Inclusion


“Biodiversity must be integrated from the start when generating new ideas,” Nico Tillie (TU Delft) explained, initiating the first of three panel discussions at the event. The panels consisted of various experts from the water sector who touched on the themes of water technology, biodiversity and social inclusion. Tillie and his fellow panellists Harro Wieringa (Witteveen+Bos) and Ivo Walsmit (RVO) came to a consensus that biodiversity should always be considered when developing water solutions. Walsmit: “When we view separate water initiatives as interconnected elements of a larger system, we enhance our collective capacity to influence these projects in ways that bolster biodiversity.”

“When it comes to biodiversity, it’s not just about minimising harm; it’s about achieving positive gains.” – Nico Tillie, TU Delft

Nico Tillie, Harro Wieringa & Ivo Walsmit – Photo by Peter Venema.

Water Technology

“The Netherlands is renowned for its innovative water technology and collaborative work ethos. Yet there is a need to accelerate the application of these innovations in our own country,” explained Hein Molenkamp (Water Alliance). In the discussion with Michiel Staatsen (NX Filtration) on the ambitions of Dutch water technology, Michiel noted that his company faces more challenges to apply their innovations in The Netherlands than abroad, and that our country is lagging behind looking at the low water quality of surface water in the Netherlands. Both panellists highlighted the global significance of Dutch innovations and underscored the necessity of confronting domestic water-related challenges. Staatsen concluded: “Numerous Dutch companies possess great water solutions. Now it’s time to shift from talking to action.”

Heijn Molenkamp – Photo by Peter Venema.

Social Inclusion

“For centuries, the Dutch have used a participatory approach in addressing water challenges, and we aim to bring that mindset when collaborating with foreign partners,” says Rob Steijn. He, along with Shahnoor Hasan (Deltares) and Melvin van der Veen (Both Ends) discussed the importance of social inclusion in sustainable water management. Hasan challenges this view: “I don’t think it should be about what Dutch experts believe is a good approach. We need to rethink our understanding of social inclusion and avoid oversimplifying it.” Van der Veen adds: “My invitation for the water sector is to reach out to the local people and civil organisations when developing water solutions, because otherwise, you might end up building solutions that the locals did not ask for or are unable to sustain.”

“We need to rethink our understanding of social inclusion and avoid oversimplifying it.”- Shahnoor Hasan, Deltares

Shahnoor Hasan – Photo by Peter Venema.

Explore more about social inclusion

Deep dive sessions: key outcomes

After the networking lunch all participants split into groups to join one of the thirteen deep-dive sessions in which they delved into important water themes and discussed them collectively. Below are the key outcomes of these breakout sessions, categorised into overarching themes.

Nature-based Solutions (NBS)

  • When it comes to NBS, don’t just talk and write but try ideas out to provide convincing proof of concepts. Keep it simple and start doing.
  • In a cost-benefit analysis of NBS, don’t just look for the benefits of NBS over traditional solutions, but also highlight the disadvantages traditional solutions may have in the long term.
  • Local ambassadors are key in order to take NBS forward.
  • Marginalized and vulnerable communities often encounter high risks but might benefit most from NBS. Look into the equitable distribution of the benefits of NBS vs the risks encountered.

“Essentially, it is all about deep listening. That is something we, as the water sector, are learning and we should keep on improving that.” –  Dennis van Peppen

Dennis van Peppen – Photo by Peter Venema.


Social Inclusion

  • When aiming for locally-led development, we need to unlearn old practices, learn to deeply listen and, instead of making decisions ourselves, facilitate local stakeholders in the development process.
  • Serious board gaming (using games as simulation tools to model real-life scenarios, strategies or systems for educational, training or decision-making purposes) shows how easy it is to fall into the trap of exclusion. Creating moments to reflect without judgement on what has happened – both after serious gaming and in real-life – creates space to become aware and ‘unlearn’ unwanted practices.
  • To enhance socially inclusive processes, listening to a representative group of local stakeholders and letting go of egos is key.
  • Socially inclusive processes require time. It is crucial to allow local stakeholders sufficient time to understand the issues and to avoid making any hasty decisions.

“It really struck me that all the people playing ‘locals’ in the Delta Planning board game didn’t say a word throughout the game.” -Stephanie Janssen, Deltares

Stephanie Janssen – Photo by Peter Venema.


Business & technology

  • With aid alone we will not reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To progress in global sustainable water management, the private sector needs to step in with sustainable, profitable business models.
  • Key principles for successful sustainable, profitable business models include being driven by local demand, ensuring fair and achievable risk sharing and fostering local ownership.
  • Bridging the gap between space technology and water management requires effective communication to educate water professionals about the value and interpretation of space-derived data.
  • Developing practical use cases can demonstrate the application and benefits of space technology within the water sector.

“Prioritising the development of water solutions should begin with understanding the society, culture, and identity of the people for whom we are building, before delving into the technical aspects.” – Riaz Hamidullah, Ambassador of Bangladesh in the Netherlands.

Riaz Hamidullah – Photo by Peter Venema.

Operation and Maintenance

  • The unwanted Build-Neglect-Rebuild (BNR) cycle is complex and requires a systems approach in which we take time with relevant stakeholders to understand root causes.
  • There will never be enough budget for Operations & Maintenance (O&M). A pre-condition is to raise awareness among local stakeholders and use the local capacity.

“No one has the complete picture of BNR. Instead of starting with solutions, map the root causes and establish an agenda.” – Frank van Steenbergen, MetaMeta



  • Many countries and individuals face similar but different challenges. Images and storytelling can be powerful means to show these interlinkages.
  • Through images and storytelling, knowledge can be democratized, moving beyond large reports and exclusive spaces to reach a broader audience.

“Visuals can be effective to attract people’s attention and can tremendously help written reports to have more impact.” – Kadir van lohuizen, photographer

Partners for Water Award

More than 300 people cast their votes to acknowledge the impact of one of the three projects that were nominated for the public Partners for Water Award. The three innovative projects by FieldFactors, Nelen & Schuurmans and Royal HaskoningDHV, were funded by the PVW-IVWW subsidy scheme and significantly contributed to global water security. After a day filled with suspense, the award was presented to FieldFactors who won with nearly half of the votes.

Hugo de Vries & Kieran Dartée – Photo by Peter Venema.

I am very proud that we won the Partners for Water Award today. The project was an important first step for us in Spain in implementing an initial water and climate solution to improve water security there. Hopefully, we will look back on this starting point in four years with many new projects that we can realise to accelerate the transition towards a climate-adaptive world.


Kieran Dartée

Time for action

It was a day filled with critical reflections, valuable insights and the initiation of new collaborations. However, the journey towards improving global water security doesn’t end at Waterproof 2024. As Meike Van Ginneken said, “Now it’s time to act. Carry forward the conversations held today with your partner countries, stakeholders and beyond the water sector. Let’s bring this movement forward.”

Can environmentally sustainable solutions contribute to economic growth? We are optimistic about their potential. Within the recently launched knowledge and innovation initiative NL2120, we are conducting thorough research on the implementation of Nature-based Solutions and their capacity to drive economic growth, both domestically in the Netherlands and internationally. Job Udo (Ecoshape-HKV) together with Petra Dankers (Ecoshape-RHDHV) and Heleen van den Hombergh (IUCN) will tell you all about it in the deep dive at Waterproof 2024.

Shift in solutions

Job has been addressing water safety issues for nearly a quarter of a century. His career has taken him from Eastern Europe and Asia to Africa, where he has championed innovative solutions in flood risk management. “In recent years, there has been a shift in water management solutions towards greener measures, both in the Netherlands and internationally,” Job explains.

Cost-benefit of Nature-based Solutions

While Nature-based Solutions (NBS) are increasingly being highlighted, actual implementation is lagging behind, primarily due to cost-benefit concerns, but institutional challenges and unfamiliarity with benefits are also hampering implementation. The higher costs and the need for large-scale application to achieve significant effects often lead to a preference for traditional methods. “What is often overlooked are the secondary benefits, such as the reduction of heat stress and the improvement of living environments,” he adds. The NL2120 programme aims to identify and lower the barriers to choosing NBS, thereby unlocking their economic potential in both the Netherlands and internationally.


Accelerating implementation through knowledge

In this unique knowledge and innovation programme, over 25 partners are committed to integrating, deepening, and enriching the knowledge of Nature-based Solutions. “We focus on the physical-ecological, socio-economic, and governance aspects of water management. In doing so, we aim to accelerate the implementation of NBS in the Netherlands and beyond. It’s not just about reducing flood risks, but also about creating broad prosperity and improving biodiversity,” Job emphasises. “Everything developed in the NL2120 programme is applicable for businesses, NGOs, and institutions currently engaged in initiatives abroad.”

Taking steps together during the deep dive

“We are currently assessing the knowledge needs, exploring the questions that arise, and the obstacles that parties experience, in order to practically shape the knowledge agenda. In our deep dive, we will collectively identify obstacles and develop strategies to overcome them.”

Join us at Waterproof 2024

Can environmentally sustainable solutions contribute to economic growth? We believe they can! Join us for this deep dive at Waterproof 2024.

“Choosing long-term, Nature-based Solutions over short-term, economical alternatives is pivotal for our future,” asserts Rosa de Wolf. Biodiversity, together with our climate and water systems, forms our life-support system. All initiatives under the Partners for Water umbrella should strengthen this life-support system. But how do we transcend the abstract nature of this concept? Find the answer by joining the design charrette led by Rosa de Wolf and Nico Tillie from TU Delft.

The expertise of Rosa de Wolf

Rosa’s expertise stems from her background in urban planning and her current role as a PhD candidate in Landscape Architecture at TU Delft. Her work, which began with pioneering designs for arid urban landscapes in Morocco, now focuses on revitalizing over 3,800 industrial sites in the Netherlands into vibrant, multifunctional, and nature-inclusive spaces, a programme financed by the Nationaal Groeifonds (National Growth Fund).

Biodiversity is more than a box to tick

Rosa emphasizes that biodiversity should not be merely an afterthought or a box to tick at a project’s end. Instead, it must be a starting point. “Designing for biodiversity means creating spaces that are not just aesthetically green and pleasant but also resilient to climate change,” she explains. This approach is about understanding and catering to the specific needs of various species, ensuring that our urban environments are as welcoming and nurturing for them as they are for us.

Why now? The urgency of biodiversity

The importance of this topic has never been more evident. With increasing water management challenges in the Netherlands and globally, Rosa stresses the need for immediate action. “Nature requires time to flourish, and if we aim to secure a habitable environment for the next fifty years, we cannot afford to delay,” she insists.

Global perspectives and local impact

Rosa’s involvement with international projects such as Africa Wood Grow in Kenya, offers a wider view on the efficacy of Nature-based Solutions. Another exemplary global initiative is the mangrove plantation in Indonesia, which demonstrates how nature can be instrumental in coastal restoration. These worldwide examples provide concrete evidence of the critical role biodiversity plays in tackling environmental challenges, from soil erosion to effective water management.

The future is green and diverse

Looking forward, Rosa envisions a world where biodiversity is at the forefront of urban design. “The future should see green, diverse spaces as a standard, not an afterthought,” she says. This vision requires a paradigm shift in how we approach urban development, prioritizing long-term ecological benefits over short-term gains.

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