In the Netherlands, half the population (8 million people) live below sea level. Their major population centres are clustered along rivers. The Dutch experienced their last major flood event in 1995. The UK has experienced at least six major flood events since then. What do our neighbours across the North Sea do differently? Letâ€™s examine two very different approaches to flood prevention.
Early Water Management in the Netherlands
The low-lying peaty soil of the Netherlands is great for growing crops. The area has been inhabited by farmers for Millennia. The earliest attempts at water management were dikes of stacked peat sods built during the Iron Age. The windmills that we associate with the Dutch landscape were actually wind-powered pumping stations for moving water away from arable land. As the population grew and the numbers living in the cities swelled, water management became a top priority.
The Twentieth Century
The Netherlands experienced devastating floods in 1953. A storm surge from the North Sea hit when the rivers were high and overwhelmed the ancient dike system. 1800 people died. The Dutch governmentâ€™s response was to develop a plan that would take over a generation to complete. The complete rebuild of the dike and dam systems and the installation of flood barriers in the river estuaries wasnâ€™t completed until 1998. Following floods in 1995, when a quarter of a million people were evacuated as a precaution â€“ the Dutch embarked on an even more ambitious programme: Ruimte voor de Rivier (Room for the River) was a policy document that advocated widening riverbeds rather than reinforcing dikes. Measures have been implemented to allow the river to flood where it will have least impact.
The Dutch solution to flooding has been to learn to live with the water â€“ to analyse where it is best to put protection in place and where it is best to let the water flood. There is close cooperation between national government, local authorities, the business community and the general public. Room for the River is a major infrastructure project costing â‚¬2.3 billion that has been largely completed on time and under budget.
Flood Protection in the UK
The UK experienced the same storm surge in 1953, hundreds of people along the East coast lost their lives. London got off comparatively lightly, but the UK government were worried that a similar flood might one day affect our nationâ€™s capital. Plans for a flood barrier in the Thames were delayed because they didnâ€™t want to affect shipping. It was only when containerisation led to narrower cargo ships that the Thames Barrier went ahead. It was completed in 1984.
There have been several major flood events in the UK in the last thirty years â€“ the Dutch have had none since 1995 â€“ after each of them, the government of the day promises that something will be done. Unfortunately, we seem to lack the joined-up thinking that characterises the Dutch approach to flood protection. Huge amounts of money are spent on infrastructure projects, but householders and business owners arenâ€™t consulted and many donâ€™t feel they have access to the flood precautions that would make them feel safer.
If you live in England, you can see how money is being spent and how many houses are being made safe by flood protection in your constituency on this interactive map.
What the UK Could Learn from the Netherlands
Long term planning has been a key feature of Dutch flood defence. They are already looking ahead to 2100 and planning how to deal with a projected sea-level rise of between 60cm and 130cm as a result of climate change. In some places, farmsteads have been raised up to six metres so lower pastures can be flooded, but farmers and their livestock have somewhere safe to go until the floodwaters subside. Itâ€™s not hard to imagine a similar project working in the Somerset levels, say, if only politicians were prepared to act with more foresight.
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