Lessons from the recent floods in the Netherlands, luck or wisdom or both?

When the clouds started gathering and turning dark grey around what was supposed to be a lovely mid-July day, little did we know the devastation the ensuing floods would cause for much of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

Controlled flooding through a bypass canal along the Waal river, Nijmegen, Netherlands ©Zoran Vojinovic

Authors: Zoran Vojinovic and Inger de Boer, Editor Claire Warmenbol

On 11 July 2021, the weather conditions in Western parts of Europe triggered exceptionally high precipitation rates, which in turn led to widespread flooding turning many regions into disaster zones not seen in decades. Tragically many people lost their lives, many remain unaccounted for and those who survived the worst flooding risk becoming homeless and displaced.

On top of the human loss and suffering, the economic damage caused by the flooding has been estimated to be around 6 billion Euros ($5.08 billion)[1] with many other “cascading impacts” like oil spills not yet accounted for in the overall total.

For the Netherlands, the damage was less than its Southern neighbours and with no loses in human life. Many have wondered why. Was it luck or wisdom, or both?

It is now clear that the measures implemented in the Netherlands with the ‘Room for the River’ and the ‘Meuse Works’ programmes, have prevented the worst outcomes from this year’s flooding. The initiatives were launched after the flood threats in 1993 and 1995 when over 200,000 people in the Netherlands had to be evacuated and the dikes only just held.

The programmes’ inception followed that narrowing escape and various measures, both structural and non-structural — meaning a mix of engineered (grey) and natural infrastructure (green) — were implemented. Examples of green measures were large-scale Nature-Based Solutions such as river restoration or rehabilitation, river widening, reshaping floodplains, lowering or removing groynes[2], and digging bypass canals and raising embankments along the main rivers to give more space and absorption capacity for floodwaters should they arise.

[1] Helmholtz Zentrum fuer Umweltforschung in Leipzig

[2] A groyne is a shore protection structure built perpendicular to the shoreline of the coast or river

House located within a floodplain on artificially raised land remains unharmed as is part of the controlled flooding plan ©Zoran Vojinovic

Important examples of non-structural measures include the early warning system that issues regular alerts in advance of floods as well as awareness raising campaigns among local communities in the Netherlands. These too functioned as key protection measures in avoiding human loss or injury.

The heavy summer rainfall illustrates what the Dutch Rijkswaterstaat has known for some time, with a view to climate change it is vital to prepare and invest in the country’s natural infrastructure in order to prepare for extreme weather. Previously the approach was mainly about high water levels, but today long periods of drought are also being part of the adaptation strategy. Rijkswaterstaat Project Manager Brouwer said that “while it may seem crazy to say now, we are also working on extremely low water levels. That too has serious consequences for shipping, nature and water safety in the future.”

The range of Nature-Based Solutions implemented within the ‘Room for the River’ programme serves as a paradigm case for the EU RECONECT project which focuses on demonstrating the effectiveness of Nature-based Solutions for hydro-meteorological risk reduction. In an era when Europe’s natural capital is under increasing pressure, RECONECT aims to stimulate the co-creation of land use planning linking the reduction of hydro-meteorological risk with local and regional development objectives in a sustainable and financially viable way.

More information: http://www.reconect.eu/

Map of the Room for the River locations in the Netherlands. ©Ruimte voor de Rivier.

The RECONECT project demonstrates the effectiveness of Nature-Based Solutions for hydro-meteorological risk reduction in rural and natural areas www.reconect.eu