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Behind the Dutch levees: water disaster risk management

Behind The Dutch Levees: Water Disaster Risk Management

The Netherlands is both the most densely populated country and the lowest country relative to sea level in Europe. Combining their exposure with this intrinsic vulnerability of the country suspect a recipe for disaster, be it that the Netherlands have always adapted to the risks induced by the adjacent sea and vast river systems. They even managed to use the water as a beneficial position regarding global trade, e.g. becoming the world’s second largest agricultural exporting country in absolute value terms (Van Lohuizen, 2022). The Netherlands are therefore well-known for their effective water management (Huisman, 2004), both by adaptation and turning challenges into opportunities.

Despite this management, the country remains prone to substantial risks, especially with the changing climate causing more extreme weather events, higher peak flows and sea level rise (Solomon, 2023). In 2021, part of the province of Limburg is for example flooded due to extreme rainfall, resulting in an estimated damage cost of 383 million euros (L1mburg Centraal, 2021; Sittardgeleen, 2023) (Fig. 1). 

Behind the Dutch levees: water disaster risk management - paragraph image - Flooding in Limburg - Duurzame student
Figure 1: Flooding in Limburg, 2021. Source: NOS, 2023. 

Recently released reports by Dutch governmental institutions furthermore discuss different climate scenarios for the Netherlands, which stresses the expected increase of both flood (Hoogwater, 2021; KNMI, 2023) and drought risk (KNMI, 2023). For instance, increased frequencies of flooding of major rivers like the Meuse are found to be the result of climate change (Tu, Hall, de Laat & de Wit, 2005). Furthermore, drought stress in grasslands has become stronger, with an expected increase in irrigation demand of 11-19% by 2050 (Kroes & Supit, 2011). In addition, the salinization of groundwater affects water availability for irrigation, drinking water and industrial uses (De Louw, Essink, Stuyfzand & Van der Zee, 2010). Water resource management is therefore, apart from direct risk management, becoming increasingly important. 

Despite the long historical record of controlling the water, climate change thus creates new major challenges. Further adaptation, especially focused on reducing water risks posed by climate change, is therefore indispensable (Botzen, Van den Bergh & Bouwer, 2010). Which adaptations should be implemented is subject of debate. This essay aims to provide a system approach to indicate system functioning failures in the Netherlands and to propose an effective water risk disaster management approach to overcome these failures.   

Water risk is composed of hazard, vulnerability and exposure to changes in the environment. Risk adaptation consequently aims to reduce at least one of these components in order to reduce the risk. Due to climate change, especially the hazard component has recently been increasing (KNMI, 2023), asking for adaptation. This can be done by e.g. building new infrastructure to keep flood risks at their current level, which is encouraged and ought necessary by e.g. Tol, van der Grijp, Olsthoorn & van der Werff (2003).

In the northeastern part of the Netherlands, which is above sea level and therefore relatively elevated compared to the rest of the country, most agriculture is conducted (Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving, 2019). Therefore, vulnerability to flooding here is to a lesser extent compared to e.g. the province of Zeeland, in which a significant amount of surface area is used for agriculture as well (ibid.). Droughts are however more impactful in the northeastern areas, since the groundwater level is generally lower here. Agricultural drought frequency is furthermore found to be increased over the past century, especially in these more inland regions (Philip, Kew, Van Der Wiel, Wanders & Van Oldenborgh, 2020). 

The interaction between these floods and droughts are however not well-studied because research is mostly focused on the catchment scale, ignoring intercatchment or even broader processes at play (Nobre, Muis, Veldkamp & Ward, 2019). In addition, since floods and droughts occur on different timescales and also act on different spatial scales, research generally focuses on either one of the two (Ward et al., 2020). In order to effectively deal with both floods and droughts, water management should combine changes in the water system (Bartholomeus et al., 2023). To do so, the interactions between floods and droughts should be identified and recognized. 

As stated before, the Netherlands is one of the major agricultural practitioners in the world, using the full potential of the overall flat and healthy surface of the country. In order to maintain favorable conditions for agriculture, water levels are lowered (Oliveira et al., 2018). This lowering however causes the peatlands to oxidize, causing land subsidence. The human-induced subsidence thus increases flood risk (Pierik, Stouthamer, Schuring & Cohen, 2018). Moreover, the heavy machinery that is used for agricultural practices causes soil compaction, which makes the land more prone to flooding because of reduced infiltration capacity (Alaoui, Rogger, Peth & Blöschl, 2018). This makes flooding the main off-site damage in terms of costs (Keller, Lamandé, Naderi-Boldaji & de Lima, 2022). Soil compaction also causes greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing climate change and thus further increasing flood and drought risk (Graves et al., 2015). The grasped ‘opportunity’ thus turns out to significantly increase flood risk. 

In addition, climate change induced droughts are currently lowering the water table even more, with an expected further increase (KNMI, 2023). This way, land subsidence is further enhanced. This land subsidence occurs on both agricultural lands and urbanized areas, with agricultural lands being most prone to subsidence (Koster, Stafleu & Stouthamer, 2018). Insurers state that the foundations of over 1 million houses in the Netherlands, which is about 13% of all houses (Ministerie van Volkshuisvesting en Binnenlandse Zaken, 2023), are at risk due to groundwater subsidence. This is the direct cause of droughts induced by climate change (Verbond van Verzekeraars, 2023). Even though assets in urbanized areas are overall higher than on agricultural lands, the agricultural sector is a major component of the Dutch landscape thus still resulting in substantial exposure. The interactions between floods and droughts thus significantly increase water risk. 

To reduce flood risks, the Netherlands have always been well-known for their polders, which are essentially floodplains to manipulate excess water. Farmers are allowed to conduct agriculture on these polders as well. During the 20th century, the water management system became very refined in favor of agriculture (Verhoeven & Setter, 2010).

The effects of drought on inland wetland and peatlands is however found to be increased as a result of climate change, resulting in degraded soils (Stirling, Fitzpatrick & Mosley, 2020). Apart from the fact that these soils thus become less usable for agriculture (Verhoeven & Setter, 2010), their water storage capacity and infiltration capacity is decreased due to the degradation and causing subsidence of peatland, both directly resulting in higher flood risk (Conijn & Lesschen, 2015). Moreover, inundation damage of these wetlands by a breaching levee can be much more extensive than for intended inundation (Vis, Klijn, De Bruijn & Van Buuren, 2003) (Fig. 2). 

Behind the Dutch levees: water disaster risk management - paragraph image - maximum water depth in case of levee breach - Duurzame student
Figure 2: Maximum water depth in the event of a levee breach. Source: Rijkswaterstaat, 2022.

Reducing flood risk by polder-adaptation strategy paradoxically has thus not only led to higher flood exposure and vulnerability on the longer term, but also increased the effects of climate change induced droughts. In order to improve the current water management system, longer-term scenarios on vulnerability and exposure are thus necessary (Boin, Ekengren & Rhinard, 2020). This furthermore shows how neglected interactions could cause an underestimation of the effects of processes at play. The recognition of flood and drought risk interaction in taking adequate adaptive action is therefore indispensable, especially accounting for effects of climate change. 

To understand how disaster risk management can be improved, the current management system is scrutinized. The Netherlands consists of 21 water boards, which are regional institutions responsible for water management (Restemeyer et al., 2017). Their tasks include monitoring and sustaining water quantity and quality, and maintaining waterways (Havekes et al., 2013). They also aim to fulfill a crucial role in creating an adaptive water system to the changing climate. However, since the water boards are only responsible for the region they are assigned to, there is yet no overarching idea on how to adapt and, more importantly, whether they adapt the composed Dutch water system sufficiently (Kamperman & Biesbroek, 2017). 

Regarding flood adaptation, the Dutch system currently aims on flood prevention, while e.g. the British system is more focused to act upon spatial decision making for minimizing potential consequences of a flood event (Van den Hurk, Mastenbroek & Meijerink, 2014). Furthermore, Dutch governance on droughts is not yet sophisticated at all (Brockhoff, Biesbroek & Van der Bolt, 2022). Overall, the proposed or implemented water risk adaptation measures in the Netherlands are currently in the light of technological solutions, together with a more recent trend of creating some awareness among stakeholders, while international policy strategies advocate for adaptation on the regional level (Kamperman & Biesbroek, 2017). So, even though the Dutch water boards are designed to operate regionally, they apparently fail to adapt properly at this scale. 

During the past century, flood and drought disasters have been exceptional in the Netherlands, which advocates for the functioning of the water boards. Since Dutch people pay ‘water board taxes’, these water boards are electable. The lack of urgence for disaster prevention may have influenced Dutch voting behavior, hampering long-term vision on water safety and increasing exposure; the so-called ‘levee-effect’ (Baan & Klijn, 2004). Until recently,  predominantly physical solutions (like dams and dikes) created ‘perceived safety’ and moreover removed the impulse for shifting towards e.g. the British impact reduction focus of managing water (Van den Hurk, Mastenbroek & Meijerink, 2014).

The water board system thus fails to implement adequate integrated and regional specific adaptation measures while water risk increases due to the combined influence of climate change and the levee-effect. Together with the aforementioned effect of ignoring interactions between flood and drought risk and longer-term consequences of adaptation, it seems as if the management system used to function properly but is failing to cope with the climatic changes that already have become increasingly tangible during the past decades. 

Regarding the current focus of water boards, the awareness of this system failure is apparently lacking. More specifically for stakeholders, exposed people tend to feel more irresponsible the longer disasters do not occur (Kron & Thumerer, 2002). The new trend on involvement of stakeholders is therefore a desired development, however not yet at the level to further adopt the risk approach (Van den Hurk, Mastenbroek & Meijerink, 2014). The question remains how to further amplify this approach and to create a shared feeling of responsibility, replacing the ‘mental levee’. A revised policy focus and institutional reform are the base to improve the functioning of the water management system (Albrecht & Hartmann, 2021). 

This starts with recognition of the water risk. This means that all risk components (i.e. vulnerability, exposure and hazard) for both floods and droughts and their reciprocal interactions should be incorporated in the decision making for adaptation. Recognition creates the possibility for establishing interaction between reservoirs and wetlands as respective sinks and sources of water, which is recently found to increase climate resilience in China (Wu et al., 2023). This shows the potential of proper governance on dealing with floods and droughts with the existing polders, creating an opportunity resulting from recognition.

From a comparison of water management between Poland and the Netherlands it becomes clear that an undisturbed landscape creates climate resilience (Stańczuk-Gałwiaczek, Sobolewska-Mikulska, Ritzema, & van Loon-Steensma, 2018), stressing the need for recognition of current exposure and vulnerability of these ‘disturbed’ polders.  The recognition should furthermore be done over the whole flood-drought spectrum, since current water management tends to focus on the wet part (e.g. flooding), which increases the vulnerability to droughts (Bartholomeus et al., 2023). Recognition should cause droughts to be more incorporated in Dutch water risk policy in general (Brockhoff, Biesbroek & Van der Bolt, 2022). 

More emphasis on involvement of stakeholders enhances successful water risk adaptation (Lamers, Ottow, Francois & von Korff, 2010). Even though people do not want to be responsible directly, a participatory approach raises awareness (ibid.). A new attitude of insurers regarding water risk can be established by their involvement and ability to materialize effects of climate change (Botzen, Van den Bergh & Bouwer, 2010). This could also establish more awareness among stakeholders, making the water risk a shared risk.

Moreover, more than 60% of Dutch municipalities consist of private ground (SPATwater, 2023), which underlines the potential of more involvement in making climate adaptive choices in spatial planning. Furthermore, the communication to stakeholders should be improved to make them aware of the water risk. Water risk awareness can be stimulated more easily among farmers by less use of jargon (e.g. ‘return period’) and more focusing on what the impacts may be (e.g. in terms of monetary costs), especially regarding the underestimated effects of drought (Van Duinen, Filatova, Geurts & Van der Veen, 2015). 

Finally, to keep track of countrywide progress and regional effectiveness of adaptation measures, enhanced cooperation between institutions is desired. This cooperation should establish the centralization of the water boards (Bartholomeus et al., 2023) to establish the shared aim of:

  1. Incorporating all risk components in water risk management,
  2. Imposing an integral approach over the full water spectrum (i.e. both floods and droughts)
  3. Implementing adequate (non-contradicting) adaptive measures.

For this, an independent commissioner for each water board, focusing specifically on water risk adaptation, should be assigned. Their task would be to keep track of regional specific adaptive progress, also investigating long-term effects of adaptation, and to communicate this between other waterboards. 

The Room for the River project, initiated in 2007 by the Dutch government, essentially reducing flood risk by creating more space for the river and qualitatively improving the riverine area (Room for the River Programme, 2019), is a good example of this RISC-approach (Recognition, Involvement Stakeholders and Cooperation). The project successfully applied a centralized governance approach at several institutional levels, and is expected to enhance this proposed transition to integrated water management (Rijke, van Herk, Zevenbergen & Ashley, 2012). 

While the perceived risk is decreasing, the actual risk increases due to the effects of climate change. To conclude, the ability to cope with these effects lies within a shift of the current water management approach towards the outlined RISC-approach. This way, the Netherlands establishes climate resilience and deservedly forms an example for other countries for effective current day water disaster risk management.

This essay was written for the course ‘Water Risks’ for my MSc Hydrology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Check out these articles (unfortunately all in Dutch):

Click here for the references
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  • Lamers, M., Ottow, B., Francois, G., & von Korff, Y. (2010). Beyond dry feet? Experiences from a participatory water-management planning case in the Netherlands. Ecology and society, 15(1). 
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  • Pierik, H. J., Stouthamer, E., Schuring, T., & Cohen, K. M. (2018). Human-caused avulsion in the Rhine-Meuse delta before historic embankment (The Netherlands). Geology, 46(11), 935-938.
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  • Rijke, J., van Herk, S., Zevenbergen, C., & Ashley, R. (2012). Room for the River: delivering integrated river basin management in the Netherlands. International journal of river basin management, 10(4), 369-382.
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  • Stańczuk-Gałwiaczek, M., Sobolewska-Mikulska, K., Ritzema, H., & van Loon-Steensma, J. M. (2018). Integration of water management and land consolidation in rural areas to adapt to climate change: Experiences from Poland and the Netherlands. Land Use Policy, 77, 498-511.
  • Stirling, E., Fitzpatrick, R. W., & Mosley, L. M. (2020). Drought effects on wet soils in inland wetlands and peatlands. Earth-Science Reviews, 210, 103387.
  • Tu, M., Hall, M. J., de Laat, P. J., & de Wit, M. J. (2005). Extreme floods in the Meuse river over the past century: aggravated by land-use changes?. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 30(4-5), 267-276. 
  • Van den Hurk, M., Mastenbroek, E., & Meijerink, S. (2014). Water safety and spatial development: An institutional comparison between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Land Use Policy, 36, 416-426.
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  • Vis, M., Klijn, F., De Bruijn, K. M., & Van Buuren, M. (2003). Resilience strategies for flood risk management in the Netherlands. International journal of river basin management, 1(1), 33-40.
  • Ward, P. J., de Ruiter, M. C., Mård, J., Schröter, K., Van Loon, A., Veldkamp, T., … & Wens, M. (2020). The need to integrate flood and drought disaster risk reduction strategies. Water Security, 11, 100070.
  • Wu, Y., Sun, J., Hu, B., Xu, Y. J., Rousseau, A. N., & Zhang, G. (2023). Can the combining of wetlands with reservoir operation reduce the risk of future floods and droughts?. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 27(14), 2725-2745.
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