About the city and its flooding problem

With 512.000 inhabitants, Antwerp is the largest city of the Scheldt basin and the second largest of the country. The city is located at a vulnerable spot along the river: where the river downstream from Antwerp has the shape of a funnel, it narrows up significantly near the city. Although the Scheldt represents a large potential threat, Antwerp has not been flooded by it recently. This makes it an interesting case compared to our second and third case studies, which have been heavily impacted by fluvial flooding in 2010 and 2011. Between 1998 and 2003 however, the northern part of Antwerp did suffer from flooding with pluvial cause.



Characteristics of flood risk governance in Antwerp

The Antwerp Flood Risk Governance Arrangement is composed of 3 sub-arrangements, which each focus on a specific part of the policy domain. A first is the Urban Water Management arrangement, which includes pre-dominantly spatial planners at municipal and regional level. The principal initiatives taken within this sub-arrangement are the water test, the appointment of signal areas and the development of a Rainwater Plan. The Flood Defence Arrangement consists of water managers at several governmental levels, which are in charge of the maintenance of a specific watercourse. The central cornerstone of this sub-arrangement is the Sigma Plan, which provides the elevation of the flood protection along the Scheldt river. The Flood Preparation Arrangement is formed by emergency planners from the City and the federal level. It aims to reduce the damage caused by flooding through the development of actions plans.

Tabel summary Antwerp


Changes in the Antwerp flood risk governance

The case study investigates the evolution of the Antwerp Flood Risk Governance Arrangement between 1998 and 2014. In this period, the arrangement underwent 3 significant changes.

A first shift, which affects primarily the discourse on flood risk governance, is the move from an exclusive focus on flood defence to a discourse on ‘making space for water’. This discourse shift was triggered by the floods of 1998 and by new regulation of the Flemish government, in particular by the instrument of the water test. In practice however, the attention for water storage and infiltration on public and private domain often remains insufficient.

A second major shift is the pursuit of a more integrated flood risk governance, which includes and coordinates different flood risk management strategies. Today, all strategies are present but they work rather independently from one another, which in some cases leads to ineffectiveness and inefficiency. Coordinating flood risk governance in Antwerp is complicated since it involves a large number of actors. In recent years, however, steps have been taken to reduce the fragmentation level and to strengthen informal coordination networks. The City’s planned development of a climate adaptation strategy might lead to a further intensification of the coordination between the different actors involved.

Finally, the resources of the Antwerp flood risk government arrangement, in terms of equipment and expertise, significantly raised since 1998. This shift is most visible among the actors dealing with flood preparation and flood defence. In the aftermath of the flooding, the City and Antwerp Province elaborated and professionalised respectively their emergency planning and water department. In 2005, the Flemish government approved the actualised Sigma Plan, which is to protect cities within the Scheldt basin against a river flood with a return period of 4000 years.


Strengths and weaknesses

Antwerp’s main strength lies in the fact that it disposes over resources and expertise most Belgian municipalities cannot afford. Particularly when it comes to emergency planning and crisis management, the city is well-equipped. Also, the city makes part of the working area of the Sigma Plan, which offers a global approach to flood protection in the Scheldt estuary.

Another strength is the open attitude of the City administration towards learning and innovation. Antwerp participates in European projects and has well-established contacts with other authorities in and outside Belgium. This interaction allows the City to develop a broad view on good practices of flood risk governance.

In our case study, we identified three principal bottlenecks, which remain to be addressed.

  1. A first is the fragmentation level. Currently, not less than 8 different water managers are active on the Antwerp territory. But, as explained above, the actors of the arrangement seem aware of the issue and steps are being taken to reduce the fragmentation level and enhance the coordination between them.
  2. Secondly, there is a persistent implementation gap between good intentions at policy-making level and their implementation in the field. This is a problem both in the public domain, where the attention for water often remains insufficient in practice, and in the private domain, where there is a lack of control on the execution of requirements in building permits. Currently, the City Administration is working on a Rain Plan. This should encourage its spatial planners to pay more attention to water storage and infiltration in the public domain.
  3. A last inertia problem is the absence of citizen engagement in flood risk governance. Both among the government as the population, the interest for public participation on flood issues is very limited and citizens are hardly involved in flood preparation. But where flood management is regarded by the population clearly as a government responsibility, several governmental actors indicate that responsibilities should be shared. This message is however not well communicated to the population, which might on the longer term lead to a loss of legitimacy of the current policy approach.