Local adaptation to flood risk. Lessons learned and remaining challenges from Hamburg, Rotterdam and Dordrecht

Report on the Practitioners Session at the European Climate Change Adaptation Conference, theme: Governance of Climate Adaptation, Hamburg 18 March 2013, by: Tom Raadgever, Grontmij

This practice-science session started with an introduction by chairman Peter Driessen. He explained that urban regions in the EU face increasing flood risks due to urbanization and the effects of climate change. In European, national and regional policies, attempts are made to diversify and align different Flood Risk Management Strategies (FRMSs), including risk prevention, flood protection, mitigation, preparation and recovery. Many of these strategies have to be implemented at the local level and this requires good governance.

The first presenter, Han Meyer, gave an introduction about flood risk management in the Rhine and Elbe estuary. In his view, flood problems in cities like Rotterdam, Dordrecht and Hamburg are increasing, not only by climate change but even more by the results of human interventions, especially by the narrowing and deepening of river channels and estuaries. Local adaptation measures are useful when they are combined with water retention measures at the regional  scale, such as the measures in the Dutch Room for the River program. Alignment of water retention and urban adaptation requires cooperation, both between municipalities and across scales.

Then, representatives of the municipalities of Hamburg, Rotterdam and Dordrecht explained how they manage flood risk in their unembanked areas. As front-runners they reflected on best practices and governance challenges.
Jan Moritz Muller demonstrated Hamburg’s impressive tradition with integrated flood risk management in the old Speicherstad and the newly developed HafenCity. A combination of elevated ground levels, flood proof buildings and evacuation routes above the flood level enable living in these areas outside the primary flood defence.  Good practices in governance include changing the laws to legalise living outside the primary flood defences, setting building prescriptions, giving private responsibility to people living and working in the area, setting up disaster communication systems, and appointing flood protection delegates responsible for preparing the buildings in case of a flood. Yet, it still is a challenge to check if innovative constructions meet the building prescriptions. Another challenge is to set standards for the elevation and construction of buildings that take account of sea level rise.

Peter van Veelen gave a presentation about Rotterdam. Rotterdam is inPicture Noordereiland Rotterdam March 2008 the process of redeveloping  unembanked urban areas, such as Noordeiland and Feijenoord, and improving their resilience against flooding. In this process the costs and benefits of flood protection versus flood adapted building are analysed. An important ambition is to increase spatial quality. A best practice in Rotterdam is that it organises participatory processes in order to find solutions together with the public housing companies, projects developers, businesses/industries and inhabitants. Challenges are to involve the right stakeholders, to find instruments to connect short term (private) investments with long term collective flood safety and to find governance arrangements that facilitate a local adaptive strategy. 

In Dordrecht, the historic port area with many monuments is located outside the primary flood defences, as Berry Gersonius presented. The inhabitants of this area are well aware of what to do in case of floods and protect their individual properties well. Yet, as flood risks are increasing, and major adaptation of the buildings is potentially costly or socially unacceptable, Dordrecht considers the future realisation of a new flood defence to protect the old harbour area. This temporary/moveable defence would also provide an alternative for heightening the existing flood defence (Voorstraat), which is problematic because of the many historical buildings on this dike. Best practices in Dordrecht include strong involvement of the community in disaster risk management, the leadership demonstrated by the municipality, and the creation of a Learning and Action Alliance including several authorities and scientific partners. Challenges are to change the institutionalized strategy and to find proper arrangements for distributing responsibilities, decision-making and financing by the involved stakeholders.

After the presentations, a panel discussion took place, triggered by questions from the audience. The discussion raised some more governance questions: Do we need new instruments such as insurance or flood risk norms in the unembanked areas? What opportunities are there (e.g., for recreation facilities and buildings functioning as flood defence)? How can the role of citizens and private parties in flood risk management be improved?

At the end of the session Tom Raadgever presented the STAR-FLOOD project, which will address the questions raised during the session.  The project will investigate current Flood Risk Governance Arrangements in 18 urban regions in 6 EU Member states, identify best practices and find solutions to governance issues. The STAR-FLOOD researchers aim to have an open dialogue throughout the project with policymakers, practitioners and other stakeholders.