Atlantic Cities

We're In This Together: What the Dutch Know About Flooding That We Don't

We're In This Together: What the Dutch Know About Flooding That We Don't
Rijkswaterstaat

In his brilliant apocalyptic short story "The Netherlands Lives with Water," American writer Jim Shepard imagines a time in the not-so-distant future when the city of Rotterdam is overwhelmed by flooding coming from two directions – a storm surge from the North Sea and a riverine deluge cascading down from the rain-soaked mountains of Europe. His narrator is a Rotterdam native and flood control expert who outlines in a few deft sentences the essence of the Dutch relationship with their sodden landscape:

It’s the catastrophe for which the Dutch have been planning for fifty years. Or, really, for as long as we’ve existed. We had cooperative water management before we had a state. The one created the other; either we pulled together as a collective or got swept away as individuals.

That collectivist attitude to survival has spurred the Dutch to create some of the world’s most innovative and effective anti-flooding measures. And as climate change grinds along, global sea levels rise, and coastal areas around the world are becoming more and more familiar with inundation, the water-savvy citizens of this tiny nation have found themselves suddenly in fashion.

Dutch experts have been invited to Thailand, where 2011 floods soaked 65 of the nation’s 77 provinces, overwhelmed large parts of Bangkok for weeks, and killed more than 800 people. Dutch consultants created flood simulation models, inspected failing dikes, and advised the government to implement an "integrated water plan," rather than relying on "the usual ad hoc engineering approach." They have done similar work in dozens of nations around the world, including Vietnam, Romania, Indonesia – and the United States. For the Dutch, water management is a growth industry.

Dale Morris, an American economist, has been working for the Dutch government on its U.S.-based efforts since the post-Katrina period, mostly in Louisiana, Florida, and California. He has seen how his colleagues not only disseminate their ideas to the rest of the world, but also how they learn new strategies from the nations where they’re working. Morris has become conversant in Dutch flood control engineering techniques – barriers, dikes, floodwater retention, and the like – but he is also keenly aware of the societal mindset that undergirds the Dutch approach. That mindset, he says, is significantly different from the American one for a host of historical reasons.

American cities such as New Orleans, New York, Sacramento, and Norfolk, Virginia, face not just rising waters, but also political obstacles unknown to the Dutch when it comes to water management and flood protection, says Morris.

"The Dutch have in some ways an easy problem to solve," he says. "The entire nation is at risk if the western portion floods. So the entire country is united. It’s not a question of should we do [flood protection], but how."

In the Netherlands, floods have been a part of life, and death, for at least 800 years. That uncomfortable reality led not just to a series of engineering advances, but also to a robust governmental institution – the water boards, which emerged in the 13th century as the nation’s first democratically elected bodies. “The water boards formed because farmers realized that living on mounds surrounded by water wasn’t a good way of making money,” says Morris. “Instead, they pooled their resources.”

The water boards still exist today – including that very first one, in Delft – and are responsible for every aspect of water management in a given community. They are also possessed of their own taxation authority, giving them concrete resources to deal with what everyone recognizes is a concrete problem. “Because the flood risk is so high,” says Morris, “it’s ingrained that the flood risk is real.”

When it comes to water management, Americans are starting out way behind. Not only is there continuing denial about the growing risk and severity of flooding – especially as it relates to climate change – but in a large country such as ours, huge swaths of people can ignore the problem altogether. And our governmental structure, says Morris, reinforces the fragmented attitude.

“In the U.S., because of the way federalism works, it makes it more difficult for the U.S. to have an applied holistic approach,” he says. The scarcity of financial resources makes a concerted effort even harder to achieve, as competing interests clutch at every one of the dwindling dollars Washington is handing out. Coordination seems laughably out of reach for Americans.

But for Dutch, coordination is a simple necessity. It’s only coordination that has enabled the Dutch to hold their ground against a rising tide for the last few centuries – and to market their expertise around the world. Yes, they have built dikes and levees and barriers. Yes, they have drained inland seas and reinforced beaches. They have piloted programs that allow water to flow rather than just trying to push it back, such as the “Room for the River” initiative.

But the Dutch approach is about much more than engineering. It’s about governance, openness to new ideas, flexibility, and a willingness to realize that sometimes, when the common good is threatened, stubborn individualism is useless.

The Dutch also know, from experience, just how much is at stake. They realized long ago that an intelligent approach to water is a matter of survival. Dale Morris put it this way: “There’s a lot of reasons to get this right.”

All images courtesy Rijkswaterstaat and the province of South Holland.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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