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What the Dutch can teach the world about flood preparedness

Volunteers and foresters of the Society for Preservation of Nature Monuments in the Netherlands take part in clean-up operation to collect waste and rubbish from the floodplain around the Meuse river in Meers, southern Netherlands, on July 27, 2021.

ROB ENGELAAR | AFP | Getty Images

LONDON — The Netherlands’ unique approach to water management can provide some key flood preparedness lessons for countries around the world, experts have told CNBC, particularly since the deepening climate emergency is likely to make extreme rain events more common.

It comes shortly after intense rainfall and flooding wreaked devastation across parts of western Europe earlier this month.

Germany and Belgium were the worst-hit countries by the extreme rainfall on July 14 and July 15, with authorities reporting more than 200 people to have died as floods engulfed entire villages. Parts of Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were also badly affected.

Yet, while the Meuse River — which flows through France, Belgium and the Netherlands — reached record high water levels, the scale of destruction in the Netherlands was not the same as seen elsewhere.

Flood experts told CNBC that while there are several reasons that make it difficult to directly compare the destruction seen in the Netherlands with other countries in western Europe, decades of investment into flood preparedness certainly helped to limit the damage.

BAD NEUENAHR, GERMANY – JULY 16: Resident Elke Wissmann stands in front of her property that was destroyed by the flood on July 16, 2021 in Bad Neuenahr – Ahrweiler, Germany.

Sascha Schuermann | Getty Images News | Getty Images

“It was a terrible disaster. People lost their lives and people lost friends and families, so there is nothing to brag about. The Netherlands did not see the massive rain Germany saw or Belgium saw,” Henk Ovink, a flood expert and the Netherlands’ special envoy for international water affairs, told CNBC via telephone.

One key reason the Netherlands was able to cope with a large amount of water moving through its river system during the recent flooding disaster was that “a lot of effort” and investment had gone into improving the country’s flood defense in recent years, Ovink said.

These measures included the widening and deepening of river channels as part of the government’s so-called “Room for the River” policy, a high level of protection for dams, dikes and levees and evacuation schemes to make sure that people can be moved to safe places.

“I don’t want to compare [to other countries], but if I look at the Netherlands, our efforts helped and worked. At the same time, as always with these challenges that our society faces, we have to use this disaster again as a stepping stone or a learning moment,” Ovink said.

“A disaster is like an X-ray. It shows the system’s vulnerability and shows all these interdependencies in the water and urban and infrastructure and societal systems. If you really take a closer look then you can learn how to prepare better for future challenges. I think that is now the burden but also the opportunity,” he added.

A long history of water management

Reflecting on the floods seen in Europe in recent weeks, Ovink proposed three ways for countries to improve flood preparedness: “First, take climate change into account in everything you do,” he said, referring to a key aim of the Paris Agreement to limit a rise in the Earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“Second, with every investment you put in place, think about nature’s capacity to help build resiliency and adaptive capacity. And third, do this with all stakeholders, from the community level up.”

The Netherlands has a long history of water management, though researchers cite the devastating North Sea flood of 1953 as a pivotal moment for the country. The flood caused widespread damage and killed 1,835 people nationwide. It prompted the construction of the Delta Works, the world’s largest flood protection system, in the southwestern part of the country.

The Room for the River program focuses primarily on big rivers, and since we are the delta where all the water ultimately discharges into the sea, that is especially important for us.

William Veerbeek

Urban flood management expert at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education

Decades later, floods in the Rhine and Meuse rivers in 1993 and 1995 saw more than 200,000 people evacuated from their homes as a precautionary measure. The near-catastrophic events triggered a change in attitude to water defense and soon paved the way for the “Room for the River” program.

William Veerbeek, an urban flood management expert at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, singled out the “Room for the River” policy as particularly important, saying the country’s approach to flood risk had “really paid off” in recent weeks.

“The Room for the River program focuses primarily on big rivers, and since we are the delta where all the water ultimately discharges into the sea, that is especially important for us,” he told CNBC via telephone.

“For other countries, too, creating more space for the water is essential because the bigger the river, ultimately the bigger the catastrophe if that river floods. On the smaller streams though, where we saw the devastation, there’s also really an issue of preparedness. And in the Netherlands, we can also invest more in that and get better at that.”

Spatial planning

Flood experts told CNBC that large-scale early warning systems, emergency evacuation strategies and plans to ensure that people know what to do when the time comes were all essential tools to policymakers seeking to improve flood preparedness.

“There is also a spatial planning component,” Veerbeek said, noting that some of the German villages that incurred the most devastation were historical areas that have been populated for thousands of years.

“But you could have a legitimate question now,” he said. “A lot of the structures have really been permanently damaged and need serious reconstruction or to be completely rebuilt. And you can ask yourself, should we build back at the same place and at the same locations?”

TOPSHOT – Aerial view shows an area completely destroyed by the floods in the Blessem district of Erftstadt, western Germany, on July 16, 2021.

SEBASTIEN BOZON | AFP | Getty Images

At the very least, Veerbeek said it would be important to reassess the locations of vulnerable infrastructure sites such as emergency services, retirement homes and hospitals to make sure that they are not located in particularly vulnerable floodplain areas.

What’s more, a new generation of urban planners and architects with an increased awareness of climate-related risks could be expected to make a big difference when it comes to the planning of new residential districts.

“I would say those are two fields in which all three countries in this case can still improve on,” Veerbeek said.

Climate scientists expect extreme weather events to become increasingly frequent amid the climate emergency. The warning comes as floods have wreaked havoc in Europe and China, toxic smoke plumes have blanketed Siberia and unprecedented heat in western North America have triggered devastating wildfires in recent weeks.

“I think what is especially interesting about the recent floods is that usually on the Meuse River, and most of the regions where it flooded, you would expect floods to occur in winter — when there is a lot of rainfall that goes on for several days, the whole basin is saturated and then it floods,” Philip Ward, professor of global water risk dynamics at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, told CNBC via telephone.

“Whereas in the summer, usually the river levels are actually quite low because there is a lot of evapotranspiration. But this time the floods came in summer when you would not normally expect this to be the case. With climate change, it is exactly these types of events that we expect to become more common.”

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