When it comes to flood protection and other aspects of water management, the Dutch have centuries of experience and expertise on their side.

Adriënne van der Sar, a senior staff member of the Netherlands Delta Programme, has been in New Zealand sharing some of that experience and expertise as we confront own water management challenges, including rising sea levels, extreme weather events and drought because of climate change.

Her visit included a public talk at Victoria University of Wellington, where ‘Enhancing the resilience and sustainability of our natural heritage and capital’ is an area of academic focus.

In her talk, van der Sar outlined aspects of the Dutch approach that might offer “food for thought” here on the other side of the world.

These included everything from floating houses and a city square that can be transformed into a water storage facility; to joint planning and funding mechanisms ,and ensuring enough flexibility so you don’t lock yourself into something you will regret later.

The Netherlands is seven times smaller than New Zealand but densely populated with four times more people — 17 million.

Low-lying, it is in places nearly seven metres below sea level and only half the country is more than a metre above sea level. Over 15 percent is land reclaimed from the sea and lakes and 60 percent is vulnerable to flooding, with experience of devastating floods as old as the country itself.

The Delta Programme succeeds the Delta Works scheme completed in 1997, which saw a massive chain of dams, dikes and other flood protection structures installed around the delta formed by the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt rivers, after a 1953 flood caused more than 1,800 deaths.

The new programme began in 2010, recommended by a Delta Commission established two years earlier to respond to the country’s acute climate change vulnerabilities.

These include a projected sea level rise of up to 85cm by the end of the century; land subsidence of 10cm in the same period; more intense rainfall and extreme weather events, affecting protective dunes and increasing river discharge by 10 percent; a 60 percent decrease in river discharge in summer; and saltwater intrusion because of rising sea levels.

As well as flood protection, the Delta Programme is focused on guaranteeing sufficient supplies of the fresh water 17 percent of Dutch industry relies on.

The programme is set up in such a way as to remove it from the vagaries of electoral and other political cycles.

“Because [the Delta Commission] said protecting ourselves against floods is such an important issue for the Netherlands in order to stay safe ,that we can’t be dependent on which kind of Cabinet is in place,” said van der Sar.

The Delta Commissioner who oversees the programme is appointed for seven years — compared with four-year parliaments.

The commissioner reports to parliament once a year on progress, the programme having an annual budget of a billion euros to support new measures and maintain existing ones.

Floating houses in Amsterdam. Photo: Getty Images

The programme takes a multi-layered approach, said van der Sar.

First there is prevention. “We want to limit the probability of flooding disaster: we’re going to heighten the dikes, we’re going to do beach nourishment [i.e. sand replenishment].”

Then there is preparing for the worst. “So you have to do spatial planning to take into account a flood event could occur and what would you do to limit the damage when that happens? For example, if you’re building a new hospital, where are you going to put your vital instruments and your vital infrastructure? Are you going to put them on the ground level? If there’s a flood event, you’re out weeks, months even, before you can go back to work.”

Van der Sar admitted “we’ve got a lot of experience in the field of flood-risk management but spatial adaptation — that’s the new kid on the block. We’re already working on it but not very intensely, so we are going to improve and speed up a bit”.

It’s “a process of learning by doing”, she said.

Floating houses are another example of spatial planning, an alternative to the Netherlands’ traditional houseboats, able to rise and fall with the level of the water on which they sit.

Or there is the Rotterdam square where “in normal circumstances you can play and have a picnic but if there’s heavy rainfall everyone leaves and water can be put in the square so the city has fewer problems [with it]”.

As well as flooding, climate change is bringing high summer temperatures. “Last year in Paris due to heat distress about 3,000 people died,” said van der Sar. “And by spatial planning in cities you can reduce the heat stress — for example by planting trees.”

It is good to look for synergies when considering measures, she said — amalgamating water management or other climate change adaptation with nature and recreational facilities, because “it has societal value if you can combine it”.

The final layer in the programme’s approach is disaster management to reduce casualties.

Programme measures are based on “stress tests”, which are revisited every six years because things may change.

“Is it a problem? Are we going to accept it or not? And if it’s a problem how do we value it? Do we want to take measures? Do we want to invest?”

Stress tests are conducted jointly by central government, municipalities, water boards, provinces and NGOs, and resulting measures are undertaken by a similar mix, including business communities. Co-funding is usual.

There is a lot of talk, discussion and negotiation, “but it’s proven to be very valuable to have joint fact-finding on what the problem is, joint decision-taking”.

With many differences between municipalities, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

When planning and implementing measures, you need to build in enough flexibility to take account of the pace of climate change and emergence of new insights and innovations, said van der Sar.

The programme is looking ahead “to 2050 and by the end 2100” and “because of the uncertainties we choose not to think in end situations but in adaptation pathways”.

A keen sailing fan, van der Sar concluded: “I love the saying you have in sailing: you can’t change the wind but you can adjust your sails. And I think that’s the case with climate change adaptation. You can’t do it on your own. You need each other. And you have to share responsibility. Work together, be transparent about it, be clear, and go for it.”

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