Awareness raising: a crucial element in Dutch flood risk management

By Willemijn van Doorn-Hoekveld

Every year the Dutch remember their greatest natural disaster, the North Sea flood of 1953 (watersnoodramp in Dutch). On the 1st of February 1953, 1835 people lost their lives, and even more lost their homes and livestock as a result of this flood. A disaster that led to the Dutch Delta Act that enabled the establishment of the Delta Works, the storm-surge barriers in the provinces of Zeeland and South Holland that made the Dutch famous for their flood risk management.

On the 1st of February 2010, the Delta Commissioner started his work. The Delta Commissioner is responsible for the Delta Programme, which aims to ensure the sustainability of water safety and fresh water supply by 2050 ( ). The Delta Programme is implemented in so-called Delta Decisions, that were published last year (September 2014). These decisions address different aspects of flood risk management, such as water safety (introducing new safety standards), spatial adaptation, water scarcity and more geographically-oriented approaches, such as for the IJsselmeer and the Rijnmond Drechtsteden area (an area in the south-western part of the country). All these Delta Decisions correspond in one way or another with the strategies defined in the STAR-FLOOD project.

Willemijn HoekveldThe Delta Programme consists of management strategies that can be described as traditional flood risk management, directed at flood defence. However, some ideas are really innovative – at least for Dutch standards. One must consider the fact that the most vulnerable areas of the Netherlands lie in the western part of the country that happens to be the most economically valuable area as well. Proactive spatial planning leading to the prohibition of urban development in this area  therefore cannot be politically discussed. In Dordrecht, one of the Dutch case studies of STAR-FLOOD, this is a striking point: the area must be safe but, at the same time, there is no room for the Dutchtraditional approach – to strengthen or heighten dikes. The Zuidplaspolder, the second Dutch case study,  is another example of innovative flood risk management. There, urban development was needed, although the area is the lowest lying in the whole country. These bottlenecks require a different approach. The Delta Commissioner as well as the Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment think that the multi-layered safety approach will be suitable for these kinds of problems. Part of this approach is to think of other measures than defence measures only, such as mitigation and evacuation. In the Zuidplaspolder one can see mitigation by the obligatory raising of floor levels in new housing. In Dordrecht this will not work, since the most threatened part is its historical city centre. So in this case evacuation is being promoted. Dordrecht has introduced the term ‘self-reliant island’ in this matter.

Even though this approach tries to ensure a broadening of strategies by the multi-layered safety approach, it does not address a structural and difficult Dutch problem: the large awareness gap relating to flood risks (OECD, 2014, p. 70). The Dutch do trust the competent authorities completely when it comes to keeping them safe, but they have no idea of the risks they are facing. At the same time, they do not even have a clue what the water managers are doing to protect them from flooding.

The Dutch government has started a campaign to create awareness. People can download an app., called ‘Will I flood?’ (overstroom ik?), or go to which tells the user whether he or she will be flooded in the case of a flood at a certain location. It is part of a larger campaign called: ‘Our Water’ (Ons water), a cooperation between the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, water boards, provinces, municipalities and water companies, which are all parties that are involved in water management.

The question is whether these campaigns really raise awareness among the inhabitants. Still, people have no idea what the tasks of the water boards are (regional water managers are responsible for –among other things– flood risk management within the regional water system, but water quality as well). Discussions are still ongoing whether the water boards should be abolished or not. This discussion is not a recent development, but it comes up now and then and takes place at the level of Parliament.

I think that it is a very worrying signal that people are not only ignorant about the flood risk they are facing, but even worse, they do not want to know what the water managers do to keep them safe. On March 18, 2015, the next elections for the Board of Directors of the water boards will be held. The turnout in the last elections in 2008, 24%, will hopefully be exceeded this year.

The turnout is a good indicator of people’s awareness. I fear that a public campaign such as ‘Our Water’ falls well short of creating the awareness that is needed for flood risk management to be carried out properly. Even though ‘awareness’ is not one of the strategies in the project, it is crucial for flood risk management to be on the political agenda in the first place. So, it is necessary that water managers try to create not only awareness but also public involvement in flood risk management, preferably by means of many people who use their right to elect the Board of Directors of the Water Authorities.


Credits for picture on home page: used with permission of Rijkswaterstaat, the Netherlands (a still from the overstroomik – app).

OECD (2014), Water governance in the Netherlands: Fit for the future? OECD Studies on Water, OECD Publishing.