Floods and Disaster Management in the nl: "God Created the world, but the Dutch created the nl"

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Floods and Disaster Management in the NL:

"God Created the world,

but the Dutch created the NL"1
Karen Engel2

Joseph E. Trainor3

John R. Harrald4

Sue McNeil5

Greg Shaw6

Marco Zannoni7


The Netherlands (NL) is a country at risk. As the name itself explains (nether= below the earth’s surface,) large areas of land are below sea level. Given this geographic reality, the nation and even the culture of the NL are focused on water. Dutch history has been characterized by flooding; recovery from flooding; and land reclamation. The ‘fight’ against water has therefore not just shaped the Dutch landscape, but has also influenced Dutch culture and society as whole.8 Particularly since 1000 AD, when the Dutch began developing dykes to increase flood prevention, water safety has been a fundamental political and social issue that is inextricably linked to the NL’ past, present, and future. As a result, unlike many other countries around the world, issues such as land reclamation, dykes, sea walls, flood gates, and water safety are more than emergency management discourse they are a part of public vernacular as well. While NL flood mitigation solutions are recognized around the world there is much more to understand and many lessons to be learned from the Dutch experience.

As suggested above, the NL has been rather effective at mitigating significant risks related to flooding. Recently, however a variety of trends are threatening the existing systems. Industrialization, heavy urbanization, and a fast-growing population are changing the face of NL' vulnerability. When coupled with the changes linked to global warming and the recent disaster experience of other “well protected” countries such as the USA, the Dutch have once again been reminded of their continued struggle with water and the potentially devastating effects of flooding. Subsequently, it is increasingly accepted that if the substantial mitigation efforts in the NL fail the country would be faced with a mega disaster. A reality that has made led many to believe that mitigation measures need to be supplemented with effective policies, procedure, capabilities, and capacities aimed at flood response and consequence reduction. This realization has moved stakeholders in the NL to reassess mitigation only policies and focus on more comprehensive approaches. This chapter is aimed at reviewing the past and highlighting important developments of the past few years, namely those related to the emergency management system. As do other chapters in this volume, we will address a number of key concerns including: 1) Hazards and Vulnerabilities, 2) Major historical events, 3) Policies and Laws, 4) The structure and capabilities for emergency response, and 5) Strengths and Weaknesses.

Hazards, Mitigation, and Vulnerability

The NL does not face the range of natural hazards other countries do. The likelihood of hazards that are significant for other countries, such as hurricanes, earthquakes or droughts, is minimal in the NL. That being said, the flood risk is significantly greater in the NL than in any other country in the world. In fact, it is estimated that without the current system of engineered flood protection measures half of the country would be flooded (Gerritsen, 2005). Flooding is THE major hazard for the NL and all other concerns are secondary.

Exposure to Flooding

In order to understand vulnerability in the NL it is important to reflect on the geography of the country. The Dutch landscape is greatly shaped by a history of natural sedimentation, erosion, and active coastal and inland land reclamation. More than half of the NL lies below mean sea level and the south-west is a marshy delta where the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt rivers discharge into the North Sea. While the Dutch geography provides fertile soil and easy access to the seas and waterways it also exposes the NL to the dangers of river flooding and of the ebb and flow of the sea (Orr, Stodghill & Gandu, 2007). But the natural terrain is only half the story in the NL.

As in other parts of the world, living in deltas has always required human intervention and this area was no exception for the NL. For decades, infrastructure has been developed to adapt the delta and create favorable living conditions. While disaster scholars have often noted that vulnerability is the result of human systems and development patterns, as a result of the scale of engineered interventions the Dutch live in a world where natural and human features of the environment are intertwined in an inseparable way. Possibly more than any place on earth, life in the NL is defined not only by the natural reality but also by the built environment. Here we provide a brief history of that interaction in order to document the NL relationships with flood vulnerability.

Life in the Dutch delta dates back to Roman times when Aardenburg, Domburg and Vlissingen were flourishing settlements. Prosperity was mainly possible because the sea level in those times was 1.5 meters lower than today's and due to a primitive dike system. This civilization did not last however due in large part to flooding due to transgressions or periods of fast increasing sea-levels. As a result, from between approximately 300 AC and 700 AC, the south west of the NL was largely uninhabitable. It was not until around the year 800 peoples returned and efforts towards land reclamation and flood control enabled this area to be settled and developed permanently.

Over time, primitive efforts towards land reclamation through damming and draining became more structured and larger in scale. This lead to the creation of 'polders' or areas below mean sea level that are prevented from flooding by a dyke constructed around the perimeter, but also need to be drained of upcoming groundwater (Gerritsen, 2005). As more and more polders were created it became increasing important to organize and maintain them. Counts were appoint to handle the matters and these 'dike-counts', supported by district councilors (heemraden) or sworn ones (gezworenen), were charged with ensuring dyke maintenance and drainage. A unique characteristic of the type of dike governance was the role of the 'normal' people. The populace would form the administrative body of these first organizations and would ensure the necessary financial support to adequately carry out their responsibilities. The responsibility of the polders was therefore shared by local inhabitants who shared the benefits of the land and unlike other matters, nobility and clergy had minor involvement. These early organizations were the basis of the “water boards” we know today (Haan & Haagsma, 1984). These organizations were important because they facilitated population growth in the south west region of the NL through increasingly elaborate dike and drainage systems. Even so, these were comparatively primitive systems. It was not until the French era or the late eighteenth century that water management was centralized and was handled by a structured government authority, namely the Rijkswaterstaat (today part of the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation and Water Management). Larger and deeper polders became possible. The industrial revolution as well as increasing trial and error fueled technological innovation that enabled the accommodation of increasing transportation and agricultural demands (Orr, Stodghill & Gandu, 2007).

By the 17th and the 18th centuries, thanks to technological developments and favorable economic conditions huge areas of land were reclaimed and the process of land reclamation continued in the 19th and 20th century on an even larger scale. Large water bodies had been transformed into productive agricultural land, partly by reclaiming broad meres and lakes and partly by reclaiming silted up land outside the sea dikes. Improvements in drainage techniques enhanced the quality of the reclaimed ‘polder.’ The largest lake reclamation scheme of the 19th century was that of the Haarlemmermeer (nowadays host to Schiphol international airport) in 1852, well over 18,000 hectares were created. Land reclamation in the 20th century was concentrated in the Lake IJssel area (with four polders with sizes of 20,000, 43,000, 48,000 and 54,000 hectares). This lake was formed in the 1930’s after the construction of the Closure dam (Afsluitdijk).

As a result of the activities above, the NL is in a unique reality. The Dutch terrain is mostly coastal lowland and reclaimed polders. The numbers speak for themselves.

  • In total, 55% of the Dutch territory is below sea-level;

  • 60% of the Dutch population lives below sea level; and

  • 65% of the Dutch national gross product is produced below sea-level.9

Historic Flood Protection (Ministerie van Verkeer en Waterstaat, 2005)

It is important to note that despite the unprecedented risk, the Dutch water management system takes the matter of flood protection seriously. Flood protection is the responsibility of the central government and the water boards. The central government, the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, is entrusted with the maintenance of the Dutch coastline in addition to the management of dams that close off the arms of the sea in the west of the country. The other infrastructural works, such as dikes, and storage embankments are managed by water boards. For the protection of the NL, the NL is divided up into 53 dike rings. Dike rings are "areas protected against floods by a series of water defenses (dikes, dunes, hydraulic structures) and high ground" (Jonkman, Kok, and Vrijling, 2008). The protection of a dike ring is determined by law and the norms are determined by the risk, thus chance multiplied by effect.

The most emblematic example of Dutch flood protection emerged after a 1953, storm tide hit the NL (described in more detail below). This event caused catastrophic flooding in the South Western Delta area. Almost 1836 people fell victim during these floods. In contrast, in the UK and Belgium, the casualties were 307 and 22 respectively (Gerritsen, 2005). Additionally, the economic damage was enormous and was enhanced by the fact that the Netherlands was in a period of reconstruction right after World War II. The public reaction was straight forward and strong as the people said: ‘This can never happen again’. The governmental response was the Delta committee that published the Delta Plan in 1960. (See diagram 1 below)10

Diagram #1-Deltaplan


The Delta works plan called for a series of engineering works, including the closure of all sea inlets, except for the Rotterdam Waterway (entrance to the Port of Rotterdam) and the Western Scheldt (entrance to Belgium’s Port of Antwerp). The Delta Works aimed at shortening the length of the coastline and subsequently the length of the potentially exposed area (Kabat, Fresco, Stive, Veerman, Alphen, Parmet, Hazeleger, and Katsman, 2009), (Orr, Stodghill & Gandu, 2007).

Furthermore, the Delta Committee introduced a new approach to determine levels of protections against flooding. Previously, the required height was determined by the highest observed water level plus 1 meter. The Delta Committee recommended however to base the required levels on a cost-benefit analysis and formulate the level in terms of return period for the design water level. This method was adopted and different return periods were established for different areas in the Netherlands. For the main cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, a protection level of one flood in 10,000 years was adopted (Mayer, Most, & Bots, 2003), (Jonkman, Kok, and Vrijling, 2008).

It is important to underline that those standards formulated in the 1960s are still used today even though they are based on the statistical likelihood of large storm surges as assessed then and the number of people and the value of the property that needs protection from flooding has also grown steadily.

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