Facing Water Challenges in the Netherlands: A WWDR3 Case Study

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Adapting to the reality of climate change and increased risk from floods has meant overturning centuries of reliance on big engineering solutions, returning land to nature and integrating risk management into policies based on stakeholder participation.


Focus Areas

Geographic Scope

Netherlands, Western Europe, Europe & CIS including the Rhine and Schelde Water Basins




Background and Significance

The Experience: Challenges and Solutions


Floods have always been a major threat in the Netherlands. They can come from storm surges from the sea, high river discharges after heavy rain or snow-melt upstream, or intense local rainfall. One of the worst floods in Dutch history took place in 1953. A combination of a high tide and a severe windstorm overwhelmed the sea defence structures on the North Sea coast. The extensive flooding caused major socio-economic losses. More recently, flooding on the Rhine and Meuse rivers in 1993 and 1995 caused hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate homes in low lying areas. Similarly, excessive rainfall in 1998, 2001 and 2002 caused problems in certain areas. These events served as a warning that future floods could have even more disastrous results due to their increasing frequency, magnitude and intensity combined with the very dense land use and population behind the embankments. Such considerations led the government to take a new approach and make spatial planning an integral part of water management. One significant result was a programme to make more ‘room for the river’. In this context, a set of measures was adopted, including deepening the flood plains, moving dikes further from the river, lowering groynes and enlarging river beds. The aim is to create a ‘comfort zone’ for the river. Unfortunately, ever-increasing urbanization and likely climatic changes mean these measures by themselves will not fully address the problem.

Consequently, the Netherlands has also made substantial investments in real-time monitoring, scenario development, flood forecasting and data collection to increase preparedness and provide early warning. In addition, innovative and comprehensive risk management policies and strategies are being based on the key principles of resistance, resilience and adaptation. This approach, unlike previous practices, considers reinforcing dikes to be a viable option only when other measures are judged too expensive or inadequate.

To limit economic losses associated with floods, a riskbased cost-benefit analysis method is being developed to identify the most cost-effective measures. These include accepting a higher frequency of inundation or controlled inundation in certain areas, or even change in land use. The risk-based approach supports local decision-making while allowing for future spatial planning on a larger scale.

In addition to its national plans and legislation, as a European Union member the Netherlands is meeting its obligations under the Flood Directive and the overall European Union Water Framework Directive.

Expanding and Maintaining the Water Infrastructure

For centuries the Dutch have invested in building structures to mitigate extreme events and regulate water levels and supply in accordance with each sector’s needs. Such structures are as expensive to maintain as to construct.

Although the country has these complex structures in place and keeps up with the cost of maintaining and expanding them, it is increasingly clear that complete safety and security can never be guaranteed. Faced with this reality, the government is implementing measures and strategies based on the principles of resistance, resilience and adaptation.

In summary, throughout the centuries, the Netherlands has defended itself against water-related threats through structural solutions that made it possible to live and work below sea level. However, the impact of climate change on national security, the economy, livelihoods and the environment is weakening the country’s resilience against the increasing intensity of extreme events and calls for new responses. Rising sea level, land subsidence, more pronounced variation between wet and dry seasons, an increase in river levels due to intense rainfall, and increasing water demand during warmer summers are just some of the challenges requiring appropriate adaptation strategies. Acting on the advice of the Delta Committee, authorities are already taking measures relying on a mix of spatial planning, risk analysis and technical innovation. Stakeholder consultation and public participation remain the core of any solution.

Results and Impact

Lessons for Replication

Testimonies and Stakeholder Perceptions


See also

Netherlands Water Partnership. 2006. Water in the Netherlands 2004–2005 and Riool in Cijfers [Sewerage Statistics] 2005–2006. Waterland Water Information Network. www.waterland.net (Accessed December 2008.)

Unie van Waterschappen. Forthcoming. Netherlands Case Study Report: Climate Change and Dutch Water Management. The Hague, Unie van Waterschappen (Association of Water Boards).

Van den Hurk, B., Klein-Tank, A. et al.. 2006. KNMI Climate Change Scenarios 2006 for the Netherlands. De Bilt, Netherlands, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. (Scientific Report WR-2006-01.)

External Resources

The United Nations World Water Development Report 3


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