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The Dutch solution to floods: live with water, don’t fight it

Kamerik Farms, Netherlands

Kamerik polder, one of 3,000 across the country. The Dutch have had such systems for a millennium, but water management became a greater priority after 1953’s flooding deaths.   Photograph: frans lemmens / Alamy/Alamy


Powered by article titled “The Dutch solution to floods: live with water, don’t fight it” was written by Tracy McVeigh, for The Observer on Sunday 16th February 2014 00.03 UTC

Nol and Wil Hooijmaaijers have been watching the TV news from Britain with some horror. “It’s terrible to see, very sad, I am so sorry. And when you see the cows up to their knees in the water,” Wils tuts and shakes her head. “We are so lucky.” Sitting at their oak dining table, looking out of the windows of their modern farmhouse at the newly planted saplings standing firm in the grey afternoon, the couple know what it is like to lose a home on a flood plain.

Their old house and fields were sacrificed to a flood management scheme that forced them to sacrifice their farm for the sake of 150,000 strangers in the city of Den Bosch, some 30km upstream. Both in their sixties, they now live on a “mound dwelling”, a man-made hillock with a flattened five-and-a-half acre top. There are eight dairy farms strung along the 6km dyke, like eight giant mud pies plunked down on the flat fields and linked by a raised road. All with the same large grey cattle sheds and new build houses in each plot.

All but one of the 17 farms that had been scattered across the land before the government’s Room for the River agency arrived have been demolished. “That one goes in four weeks,” said Nol, pointing to a tidy farm settlement behind mature trees.

The project on the Overdiepse Polder, eye-shaped farmland enclosed between the curves of two rivers, is one of 40 programmes due to be completed by next year by Room for the River. Set up in 2006, the agency was given a budget of €2.2bn (£1.8bn) to reduce the risk of Holland’s four main rivers flooding. It has been busily lowering floodplains, widening rivers and side channels – basically giving the river space to cope with extra water – and moving 200 families, including the Hooijmaaijers, out of their homes. It’s a project that the Irish government among others is interested in emulating and, after this winter, Britain may want to take note.

The low-lying Netherlands has been fighting back water for more than 1,000 years, when farmers built the first dykes. Windmills have been pumping the stuff off the land since the 14th century and the Overdiepse Polder mound dwellings are based on what the earliest inhabitants built here in 500BC. One of the most densely populated countries on the planet, 60% of the Netherlands is vulnerable to flooding, and its peat-rich agricultural soil is subsiding even as climate change is raising sea levels.

The country’s universities are producing some of the world’s best water engineers and managers and it is exporting its expertise abroad; the Dutch government has advised on water governance projects in China, Africa and Australia.

The Netherlands has also learned from past mistakes – a 1977 report warning about the weakness of the river dykes was ignored because it involved demolishing houses. It took floods in 1993 and again in 1995, when more than 200,000 people had to be evacuated and hundreds of farm animals died, to put plans into action.

Hans Brouwers is a senior rivers expert at Rijkswaterstaat Room for the River. He shudders at the idea of dredging or flood defence maintenance being neglected and says that the UK should look closely at where it has gone wrong this year.

According to Brouwers, the clear demarcation of responsibilities in the Netherlands is crucial, as are the present projects that he is involved in pushing through.

There are no financial packages for people who have to move. “They get the market value of their house and that is all. We will help them find another place, but not financially. The only thing we do is to make sure that they do not lose money.” He insists people will accept the situation “if you are honest and proactive and go to people and talk to them and take their fears seriously”. Only two cases have been taken to court by people who didn’t want to leave, both of which have been won by Room for the River.

“Of course there is opposition and of course people are hurt,” said Brouwers. “They aren’t singing and dancing about it. If you are the third generation in that house and you have to move it is terrible. But we have to find a way to live with water rather than fight it. Our task is clear. Our cashflow is constant. The programme is on track. Holland is divided and ringed by dykes and that will not change. We have built our cities for years close around rivers, we have given them no space so we have to change that.”


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