Dutch flood risk management: a perfect path dependency .

By Mark Wiering

It is the end of January 1995. Swollen rivers run through the low-lying delta of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. High water levels persist, not for a few days, but for two weeks in a row. Water levels rise and rise in the Dutch parts of the Rhine and Meuse basins. In the river area, the dike at Ochten is about to break and the road running along the dike is showing signs of cracking. The situation is called ‘life-threatening’. Military helicopters are used to take infra-red pictures and evacuation plans are prepared. Eventually a quarter of a million people from different polders in the river area are evacuated. The dike at Ochten eventually lasted, but only just.

mark_wieringAfter the event there is a sentiment of shock and relief. Shock waves ran through society because nobody expected it to happen. Since about the 9th century the Dutch are used to ‘fighting the water’ and have become world famous for their infrastructural water works. So, people were surprised that this near-flood event was possible at all. The first response is what you can call “survival and return”: increase of governmental budgets and strengthening of dikes.

But soon thereafter, the same traditional approach that was just invested in was showing signs of cracking. The more is invested in strengthening the dikes, the more people are at ease with continuing their normal economic and societal activity behind the dikes, without much concern for flood risks, and the more risks are actually taken. The more risks are taken, the stronger and higher the dikes would need to be, to keep up with the pace, as risk is probability times consequences. In addition with sea level rise on the one hand and soil subsidence on the other, things are getting worse. The existing approach was actually leading to a ‘control paradox’. Some spoke of a cul-de-sac.

Time for a change in path.

This control paradox, and a more sustainable- and nature –based discourse of living with rivers, in The Netherlands and elsewhere, led to the rise of a new approach: Room for the River (2007). This was different from the earlier dike enforcement programs in that it combined flood risk safety standards with spatial and environmental quality, and it was more focused on a long term view of flood safety: also climate change effects should be taken into account. A slight change of path.

In the years thereafter, Dutch experts are more and more discussing their risk approach. The Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) had tried to open up the discussion with a report on the limited focus of Dutch flood management and its vulnerabilities. The Dutch may have a history of water works, but are people actually aware of flood risks? Should the approach not be diversified and should The Netherlands not think of proactive and preparatory measures? Should flood awareness and flood mitigation not gain importance? Trying to open up new pathways.

‘Yes, of course!’, was the response. The Dutch introduced an umbrella term of ‘multi-layered safety’. All actors involved should think and act in terms of different layers of flood safety: the first layer of ‘prevention’, mostly referring to flood defence, should be set along two additional layers: infrastructural measures for mitigation of flood risks and disaster management, when the flood would hit the fan. This would all be necessary for a long term resilient and appropriate approach to flood safety. And this would meet the problem of the control paradox.

But by the time that a new climate proof – adaptation program was set up, the financial crisis and a right-wing political wind lead to the avoidance of the word “climate change” in policy and politics altogether, and to a back to basics – approach towards flood management. A more integrated climate adaptation program was overshadowed and replaced by a Delta- program for Dutch water problems. The Delta program was largely occupied by water engineering experts. Obviously, most engineers were focusing on infrastructural measures and evidence- based practises of flood management and tried to avoid the “softer” and more difficult terrains of spatial planning, emergency management, and flood awareness. And, obviously, doing what was always done before is safer and cheaper than shifting paths, both towards a new Room for the River, part 2 or a different risk approach.

And therefore the outcome of a four years study of measures within the Delta-program was that a multi-layered safety adventure would be too risky and expensive. The Dutch could better focus at maintenance of existing dikes and weak spots. The first layer, flood defence is the best layer, and shall only be supported in an ad hoc manner by the other layers. So, “survival and return”: increase of governmental budgets for water management and strengthening the dikes. In fact, the strength of the hydro-technical expert system of water management and the low participation of other parties, including low levels of flood awareness of the general public, are two sides of the same coin.

A perfect path dependency.


(Mark would like to thank Maria Kaufmann for her suggestions on a first draft of this column)