5 facts about Dutch flood risk management

  • 2016•06•06


    Photo by UNU-EHS 2016/Daniel Al-Ayoubi

    Large parts of the Netherlands are situated below sea level. Protective dikes along the coast line and many Dutch rivers symbolize the proactive preventive measure against the consistent threat of flooding. Climate change impacts such as rising sea levels and temperatures further exacerbate the threat of flooding for this Western European country.

    Here are 5 facts on the Netherlands and how it manages flood risk:

    Fact 1: 55 per cent of the country’s territory is below sea level. The threat of floods is severe

    To illustrate how vulnerable the Netherland is to rising sea water levels, the numbers 55, 60 and 65 paint a clear picture: 55 per cent of the country’s territory is located below sea level, 60 per cent of the Dutch people live in these areas and 65 per cent of the Netherland’s Gross National Product is produced there (a rising trend).

    A coastline that covers the whole west and north of the country, as well three large European rivers (Maas, Rhine and Scheldt) that flow into the sea add to the danger.

    Fact 2: The Dutch approach to flood risk management: The Delta Program

    Since the last devastating flood of the North Sea in 1953 – which also hit England, Scotland and Germany – an elaborate system of dams, sluice gates, storm surge barriers and other protective measures are in place in the Netherlands, next to the dikes. These are part of the annual Delta Program, which aims at protecting the country against floods. It does so by bringing together experts on water management, as well as civil society and authorities from all levels of the state.

    The Delta Program is not only a plan for protective measures against the rising water levels, but also provides ideas for urban development and restructuring of land. Thereby, it allows the Dutch people not to only protect from water related natural disasters but to actually live with the water, while it can flow through both its natural water ways and man-made ones.

    Dutch experts are also bringing their knowledge to other regions of the planet which face similar problems. “We are present in many countries, from Bangladesh to Myanmar, up to New Orleans in the USA,” says Sjaak Seen, Operational Leader of the Multidisciplinary Crisis team in the Rotterdam-Rijnmond Safety Region.

    Fact 3: The Netherlands is the first country to have a court ruling on greater climate change mitigation efforts

    In June, 2015, a court in The Hague ordered the Dutch government to cut its emissions by at least 25 per cent by 2020, instead of just 14-17 per cent as originally intended. The ruling came into being after intensive campaigning for more than two years by Dutch citizens. It is the first case worldwide in which a national government is held responsible for greater climate change mitigation efforts by its people, whereas non-obligatory commitments to the cause by the state’s leadership was the norm before.

    Fact 4: Soil subsidence has increased the danger of floods

    Soil subsidence is another problem in the Netherlands”, Sjaak Seen explains. In the city of Amsterdam, for example, many buildings in the old town are built on a foundation of wood piles which were put in the ground deeply as the peat soil was not solid enough by itself. With the soil becoming increasingly dry during the warm months, the wood is starting to crumble. On other occasions, grounds become rotten after heavy rain falls or being washed away, leading to similar effects of subsidence.

    Fact 5: The city of Rotterdam is home to Europe’s largest port

    At 12,500 ha and over 450 million tons of cargo being processed here every year, the Port of Rotterdam is not only a vibrant center of business and a major pillar in the Dutch economy, but also for the rest of Europe. At the same time, “its location in the Dutch delta at the North Sea makes the Port of Rotterdam vulnerable to floods,” says Sjaak Seen. Rising sea levels have the potential to exacerbate this vulnerability and endanger not only lives and goods, but also affect the global economy.

    Luckily though, the authorities at the port have advanced protection mechanisms in place, such as the world’s largest storm surge barrier, called the Maeslantkering.