The Netherlands, one of Europe’s most densely populated countries, is the delta region of several major rivers, with one third of its territory lying below sea level. This small country of 17 million people is known worldwide for its expertise in the field of water management and its sophisticated flood control systems. Many countries, including the USA, has turned to the Dutch in times of crisis, both to manage the immediate situation and to learn what can be done over the long term.
The struggle with water has been an intrinsic part of the history of this nation. The Dutch see themselves as a resilient people who have waged this war for centuries and who now face an existential threat because of rising water caused by climate change. They say with pride – God made the world, the Dutch made the Netherlands because they have defended their land from the sea and rivers by building an elaborate system of dykes, dams, canals, drainage systems and floodgates. Moreover, they have reclaimed land and turned challenge into opportunity by using floodplains and reclaimed land to boost agriculture in the country.
Small Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agro products in the world today after the giant United States. In fact, the main purpose of the iconic Dutch windmills was to pump out excess water from low-lying areas and make them fit for habitation and farming.
It is interesting to note that the oldest forms of local government in the Netherlands were Water Boards. The people of the Netherlands discovered very early that the only way to deal with floods is through collective action. The first Water Board was founded in 1255. In 1798, Rijkswaterstaat was founded as the national agency for water management including flood protection and prevention. Currently, it is responsible for the design, construction, management and maintenance of all major water control structures including flood defenses, storm-surge barriers and seawalls. The Netherlands today has 23 regional water boards which are independent government bodies responsible for managing waterways, flood control systems, water quality and sewage treatment in their respective regions.
An institution like Rijskwaterstaat ensures that all the waterboards work in tandem with each other. Moreover, Rijskwaterstaat is also responsible for the transport and public works department. This ensures that water management is integrated into every spatial/infrastructural development project within the country, ensuring effective and integrated management of all infrastructure. (This has relevance to the situation in Kerala-where even different dams of the same river are operated by different departments – electricity, PWD, waterboards, and the delays and lack of coordination in decision-making can have big impact at a time of crisis,)
The Netherlands has faced many devastating floods and storm surges in the course of its history. Notable among them are the First All Saints' Flood in 1170 and the North Sea floods of 1953 which led to the death of around 2,000 people and evacuation of over 70,000 people, following the breach of sea dykes caused by strong winds and high tides.
The Dutch over the years built a number of innovative systems to deal with rising sea levels and prevent future floods. The most well-known among these are the Zuiderzee Works and the Delta Works, both of which have been included in the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Zuiderzee Works is a manmade system of dams, land reclamation and water drainage works meant for flood protection and for creating additional land for agriculture. The project involved the damming of the Zuiderzee, a large, shallow inlet of the North Sea, and the reclamation of land in the newly enclosed water using polders -- low-lying tracts of land enclosed by dykes.
The Delta Works was initiated after the destructive floods of 1953 and is a series of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm-surge barriers meant to protect a large area of land around the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta from the sea. The most recently constructed part of the project is Maeslantkering or the Giant Gate which is a moveable storm-surge barrier near the Hook of Holland, a town. The huge barrier gates are floating pontoons which can be filled with water. The additional weight makes them sink and turns them into a massive barrier. The barriers are connected to a self-operating computer system which is linked to weather and sea-level data. When a storm surge of 3 metres above normal sea level is anticipated in Rotterdam, the gates will be closed automatically. A few hours before this, the ships will be warned and all water traffic closed.
The most important innovation of the Dutch with direct relevance to the recent floods in Kerala is the revolutionary concept they have evolved called the ‘Room for the River’ project.
In 1995, a quarter million people had to be evacuated as water levels rose to dangerous levels in the rivers of Rhine, Muse and Waal. Following this, the Dutch began to explore a new approach to water management aimed at ensuring that rivers discharge greater volumes of water without flooding. This marked an important shift in the political narrative of the country, regarding its relationship with water. It shifted from ‘fight against water’ (over centuries) to ‘living with water’ (by the end of the 20th century). The Dutch recognised that constantly raising and strengthening the dykes and walls was not sustainable with rising sea levels and changing river courses. There was an urgent need for an alternative perspective — embrace water, rather than fight it.
The Room for the River project, is thus an integrated spatial design plan which focuses on flood control by providing room for rivers to cope with potential higher discharges, in addition to improving environmental quality near the rivers.
A key element of this approach is urban planning whereby lakes, garages, parks, plazas, fountains and other public amenities also serve as emergency reservoirs when the sea level rises or the river swells. Under the integrated design plan of the Room for River project, the measures are designed in such a way that they improve the quality of immediate surroundings, with a focus on ‘multifunctionality’. Dykes are adjusted and walking paths, panoramic decks and retail and recreational centres are added to them. Waterfronts and neighbourhoods near them are re-designed to accommodate floods and storms. Public squares and garages are designed to serve as emergency reservoirs for rain and floodwater. There are also well-prepared documents known as ‘guidebooks’ for dealing with disaster management. Government departments from the ministries down to the local municipalities and voluntary organisations spring into action and act as per the directions contained in the Guidebooks.
The Room for the River project provides tailor-made solutions, such as the following, for different rivers.
Lowering the flood plain: Sedimentation gradually raises the level of floodplains of many rivers. Lowering the flood plain by removing its top layers gives the river more space to flow when the water level rises.
Deepening the river bed: This involves dredging of the river bed to make it deeper thereby creating more room for the river.
Groynes: Lowering perpendicular barriers (groynes) in river and building parallel barriers will enable easier drainage of excess water in the river. Barriers are constructed at right angles to the flow of the river; they should be lowered or removed depending on the level of water.
Strengthening dykes: In several areas where widening of the river is not an option due to lack of space, the dykes may be strengthened instead.
Depoldering or dyke relocation: Relocation of dykes inwards into the land increases the width of the floodplains and provides more room for the river. This is done by exposing land that had once been protected by the dyke to higher water levels so as to expand the river’s bed.
Temporary reservoirs: Under exceptional circumstances, such as when the flood or storm-surge barrier is closed and the river is discharging large volumes of water to the sea, lakes will serve as temporary water storage areas to retain the excess river water.
High water channel: A high water channel is a branch of a river used to drain high water via a different route. The channel is not excavated below the water table, but is rather formed by building two dykes in the landscape.
Removing obstacles: Removing or modifying obstacles in the river wherever possible helps increase the flow rate for the river water. This includes lowering or eliminating ferry piers on banks, widening bridge openings and removing or lowering quays and flood-free areas.
Along with above top-down measures on flood water management, the Dutch have also created models of people-led efforts. One such case is the floodwater defence practised in the town of Kampen on the banks of the river Ijssel. Here, when the water level rises, temporary barriers are installed to protect the town by citizens who are trained to be the ‘flood brigade’ of the town. A 200-person flood team can install mobile barriers within 3 hours, during an emergency. These barriers are stored within waterfront buildings of the town so that they can be easily accessed during an emergency.
Other flood risk management innovations of the Dutch include the ‘Sand Motor’, a large volume of dredged sand which was added to the coast of South Holland in 2011, leading to the creation of a sandbank of about 10,000 acres of land. Wind, waves and current spread the sand along the coast, creating a broader coastline to protect against rising sea levels. The project is expected to create 35 more hectares of extra beach and dune. The Dutch are also experimenting with the use of floating houses; geotextile as water barriers; ‘smart dykes’ fitted with sensors which constantly measure the dyke’s stability; use of apps to warn the public quickly in the event of emergency situations; Tubebarriers (mobile flood defence systems filled with water, as an alternative to sandbags or floating houses) and IT applications aimed at responding intelligently to an excess or shortage of water.
Avail Dutch expertise
Having struggled with water throughout their lives, and built significant expertise, the Dutch see themselves as having an important role in helping others deal with similar problems. The Dutch Government sends Surge Support Teams in response to calls for relief during crisis around the globe and supplies experts on water and water-related disasters to countries and humanitarian organisations on request during and immediately after a disaster.
It also sends Risk Reduction Teams across the globe to give expert advice on disaster prevention. These teams comprise of experts who advise governments on how to prevent disasters and rebuild after water-related disasters. These teams, provide advice, drawing from state-of-the-art Dutch water expertise, leaving implementation to the discretion of the requesting government.
The devastating floods in Kerala have occupied centre stage in the media of the Netherlands with an outpouring of sympathy and support from Dutch nationals as well as the Indian diaspora. The Dutch Government has indicated that they would be happy to make available their knowledge and skills to the Indian government if such a request is made. The Dutch Minister for Infrastructure and Water Management has personally written expressing grief over the tragedy and readiness to explore with India how to move forward, including through the exchange of technical expertise.
There is much that a state like Kerala and India can learn from the Dutch in the field of water management. The most important aspect perhaps is how to inculcate a culture of preparedness and continuous efforts to preserve the environment and live with nature.
Every child in the Netherlands, including foreigners who live here, have to not only learn how to swim but also to swim with clothes and shoes on because a calamity can strike at any time. It is high time the people of Kerala also adopted basic knowledge of swimming, boating, water management and protection of environment as an essential part of their education and living, considering that our beautiful state has a coastline of 580 km and 44 rivers run through it.
(The author is the Ambassador of India to the Netherlands.)