Yesterday we were reminded by the animated Google homepage that it was the first day of spring. As the days get longer and we experience more clement weather, it is easy to forget that only a matter of weeks ago we experienced the wettest weather in the UK for at least 250 years. Flooding inundated thousands of homes and caused at least £1bn of damage.
George Osbourne announced in his budget statement this week that £140m will be pledged to repairing damaged flood defences, but does this represent the best solution for ensuring better protection in the future? We asked Sander Meijerink and Dave Huitema, founding editors of the watergovernance blog, what we could learn from the Dutch approach to flood risk management.
In the past weeks, the UK has suffered from severe weather conditions, storm surges and river floods. Many were affected and the economic damage is enormous. As in other cases of flooding around the world, Dutch water managers offered assistance, and talk emerged of the ‘Dutch approach’ to flooding as a solution. But what is it exactly that British water managers could learn from their Dutch colleagues, if anything?
Flood plain occupancy
It is possible that the recent floods in the UK can be interpreted as indicators of climate change. But even if that is the case, changes in climatic conditions, rainfall intensities and flood frequencies likely offer only part of the explanation for the increased flood impacts. Equally important are human settlement and investment patterns, most notably in flood prone areas. If the situation in the UK is comparable to that in the Netherlands, then growing flood plain occupancy and increased investment in flood prone areas may be significant factors in explaining the large damage caused by the recent floods.
Flood risk management can thus not only be about the construction of innovative flood defenses, but should also involve spatial planning aimed at keeping economic activities out of flood prone areas. This has partially been achieved in the Netherlands. In flood plains along the main rivers (Rhine, Meuse) in particular, the Dutch spatial policy to inhibit development in flood plains along the main rivers has been quite successful, for instance by introducing a ‘water test’ that needs to be applied to every change in zoning plans. However, next to the sea coast, less success has been accomplished, and the Dutch continue to plan urban development there, sometimes in areas that are several meters below sea level.
Restoring and using natural dynamics
Both in the UK and the Netherlands water managers have adopted and gained experience with what in the Netherlands has been dubbed space for water policies. They no longer exclusively fight against the water by constructing technical flood defense infrastructures, but also try to restore the natural water storage capacity of river systems by giving back reclaimed land to the river, creating retention areas and so on. The Dutch also started to experiment with using natural processes in their coastal defense strategies under the slogan ‘building with nature’. A good example of this is the so called sand motor, which revolves around sand suppletion along the coast and helps reduce the energetic impact of tidal waves.
Water safety standards
In spite of the many similarities between Dutch and British flood risk management, there are also striking differences, such as the safety standards that guide government action. For the urbanized western part of the Netherlands the coastal defense safety standard is 1: 10,000 years (which means that coastal defenses are designed to withstand sea flooding that is expected to occur only once in 10,000 years); by comparison, in the UK the coastal safety standard typically is 1:200 years (1:1000 for London). The safety standard along the Dutch main rivers is 1:1,250; in England this standard typically is 1: 100.
The Dutch safety standards were formulated by the first Delta Committee. This committee was established in the aftermath of the 1953 storm surge, which also affected the UK. The second Delta Committee, which issued its report in 2008, argued that given the enormous growth of the GDP since 1953, Dutch flood safety standards should actually become more stringent by a factor of 10, which would imply a standard of 1:100,000 years for the coast. One can understand that from a Dutch point of view, flood safety standards in other countries, such as the UK and the US, appear relatively lax, even taking into account the unique geophysical and hydrologic circumstances in the Netherlands (1/3 of the territory is under sea level).
A second main difference is that unlike UK citizens, until recently the Dutch had no option to take out private flood insurance. Instead, the Dutch government may compensate for flood losses using the disaster fund, which is funded by general income tax. Only recently has one insurance company started to offer insurance policies in the Netherlands. As only a few have taken out insurance so far, the disaster fund will remain the main source for compensating flood losses. One of the potential drawbacks of introducing a private insurance system is that the government may feel tempted to no longer invest in flood protection infrastructure as the citizens already enjoy the benefits of an insurance system.
Regional water authorities
Unlike most other countries, the Dutch have very powerful regional water authorities (known as ‘waterschappen’, or waterboards), whose jurisdiction is grounded in the Dutch constitution, a fact that has helped them survive attacks from various political parties and other regional governments, who regularly propose to abolish the regional water boards. What is probably more important however is that these water authorities have their own tax system, which enables them to collect the financial resources needed for the construction and maintenance of flood defense infrastructures and other tasks that have been allocated to them. Precisely because these authorities have a special status and their own tax base, the availability of sufficient financial resources for the construction and maintenance of flood protection infrastructure is guaranteed institutionally. This is quite different from the situation in the UK, where the Prime Minister was blamed for having cut the budgets for water safety.
After the issuing of the report of the second Delta Committee in 2008, the Dutch national government launched the Delta Programme, a large national program aimed at developing and implementing strategies to guarantee flood safety and availability of fresh water in the long run, taking into account the impacts of climate change. Financial resources were recognized as a crucial factor for success. Therefore, the national government, following the recommendations made by the committee, decided to establish a Delta Fund, which should guarantee that 1 billion euros can be spent yearly as from 2015, primarily to improve the national flood defense infrastructure.
Clearly, the relative success of Dutch flood risk management should not only be explained by Dutch engineering expertise or newly introduced concepts of adaptive or eco-system based water management. The institutional characteristics of Dutch water resources management and specific ways of addressing water governance issues are equally important. Even though one should be careful with institutional transplantation as similar institutions might not be effective within a different context, the institutional mechanisms for generating sufficient financial resources are particularly worth looking at. Given the vulnerability of large parts of the UK to flooding, a specific flood protection tax or the creation of a national fund are worth considering. Of course, this also presumes a willingness to pay on the part of the population. There is no such thing as a free lunch, but going Dutch with the bill might be considered.
Sander Meijerink is Associate professor at the Institute for Management Research at the Radboud University Nijmegen. Dave Huitema is professor of environmental policy at the VU University and Netherlands Open University. They are both founding editors of the watergovernance blog and are currently finishing a book on ‘The Politics of River Basin Organisations’, which will be published by Edward Elgar later this year.