December 29, 2015, by Brigitte Nerlich
Flooding and ‘the Dutch solution’
Some years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, US news media featured Dutch-style flood management as one of the engineering solutions that may prevent future devastating flooding in the regions affected. The same happened after the winter floods in the south of UK at the beginning of 2014 and similar references are being made now after the devastating winter floods in the north of the UK at the end 2015.
When Sandy happened I wanted to write something about ‘the Dutch solution’ as what some people in Science and Technology Studies call a ‘sociotechnical imaginary’ that structures thinking about flooding in countries other than The Netherlands. I got Amanda Porter and Iina Hellsten (from the VU University Amsterdam) involved and we looked at real and imaginary ‘Dutch solutions’ to flooding after Sandy. The article we wrote was never published – one of those things – but here is a taster of what we found. We only studied US media reports after Sandy, so more work could be done on UK media reports after floods from around 2002 onwards.
When Hurricane Sandy, aka Superstorm, aka Frankenstrom, hit the Eastern Seaboard on 29 October 2012, in particular New York, it caused extensive damage and was widely reported as “the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, as well as the second-costliest Atlantic hurricane in history, only surpassed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005”. Sandy followed Hurricane Irene which had struck the same region the year before.
Sandy caused a surge of seawater that inundated Lower Manhattan closing tunnels and subway stations. New York’s subways are the “underground jewel” of the city that move roughly 8.5 million riders a day (Donohue, 2012). In addition to flooding, important routes of public transportation in the city, the storm also caused widespread blackouts. Many of New York’s buildings had infrastructures located on the ground floor, and as a result, the city’s electrical systems were flooded. The basic functions of New York City were shown to be extremely vulnerable to the risk of flooding post Hurricane Sandy (Sharp, 2012).
In the aftermath of the storm, a key issue of debate within media and policy arenas centered on engineering solutions that might be implemented for flood prevention and climate change adaptation. Much attention was given to Dutch-style flood management, prompting headlines such as these in US media: “A Dutch Solution for New York’s Storm Surge Woes?,” “We’re In This Together: What the Dutch Know About Flooding That We Don’t” and “How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post Sandy World” (Goodyear, 2013; McQuaid, 2012; Shorto, 2014). Engineering solutions were also considered in policy where US agencies and Dutch engineers formed partnerships within the region (Metz, 2012; “News Coverage,” n.d.; Schumer, 2012). On March 8th, 2013, U.S. government officials and Netherlands government officials entered into a commitment to share information and experiences on disaster mitigation, sustainable planning and water management (“Minister Schultz,” 2013).
‘Solutions’ to flooding – imagined and real
In the article we drafted we tried to compare US media representations of Dutch solutions to flooding and Dutch policy approaches to flooding. One of the most notable results of our analysis, mainly carried out by Amanda, was the way in which US media framed Dutch-style engineering solutions as proven and reliable technological fixes to an extreme threat. In this regard, the US media focused more on the myth of Dutch water management, as represented by the large “sea walls” and other hard engineering solutions, rather than the more contemporary Dutch focus on social organization and other “natural” fixes to flooding, such as the recent “Room for the River” initiative. While Dutch-style engineering solutions did spur a debated over the applicability of such solutions in the region hit by Hurricane Sandy, the impacts of such solutions were framed using “either/or” language: socially and environmentally they were framed as either “bad” or “good.” Climate change was also framed in the same “either/or” manner: as either the undeniable or unproven cause of flooding.
In contrast, the contemporary Dutch flood management policy shows that sea walls and other large engineering solutions have become only one part of a much more complex system. One of the most notable aspects of the Dutch approach was how it employed a “scale” and “scenario” approach. Flood risk was considered on different scales, from which different plausible scenarios of flooding were considered. Finally, the Dutch approach also made careful consideration of flood risk as both a climate change and socioeconomic problem. Much emphasis was given to connecting the technical, organizational, and social aspects of flood solutions.
Several conclusions can be drawn from these findings. First, our analysis indicates the importance of “imagined” solutions to climate change related threats. Public discussion and debate about complex social problems in a local context may use and draw upon “myths” about similar issues in a different cultural context. This supports research showing that climate change risk perceptions and policy support are heavily based on affect, imagery, and values. By focusing on the interplay of imagined solutions and the reality of such solutions in their context(s) of origin, we may be able to better learn from the success and failure of adaptation solutions to climate change across different cultural and geographical contexts.
The idea of writing this post came to me when seeing references to the ‘Pitt Review: Lessons learned from the 2007 floods’, published on 25 June 2008, in some of the newspapers reporting on the current floods. This review was prepared by Sir Michael Pitt following the widespread flooding that took place in England in June and July 2007 (more on this report here). When I looked at the review, I found that it makes extensive reference to Dutch solutions to flooding. Dutch policies to flooding are discussed in a section entitled “Managing flood risk – Climate change: a global challenge”. Further on in this section of the report it says: “Evidence from overseas shows that flood risk management needs to move on from hard defences to softer approaches.” The report then goes on to discuss various Dutch approaches to flooding.
In the context of the current floods in the UK, it might be worth reading the Pitt review again and act upon some of its recommendations. It might also be worth learning more about ‘the Dutch solution’, which is more than the engineering or techno-fix that it is sometimes imagined to be. So if you want to learn a bit more, read on…
Dutch flood management: 2008-2014
Flood protection and water management are cornerstones of Dutch society. Flooding is an ever-present threat, as a portion of the country is either situated below sea level or built on reclaimed land. In 1953, the country experienced a devastating flood, caused by a storm and unusually high tide, which claimed 1,863 lives (Delta Programme, 2012). Following this extreme flooding event, the Dutch government and citizens vowed to never experience such an event again. Since this time, flood protection and water management have been a dominant part of the country’s landscape.
The Dutch have historically invested in technological solutions to flood prevention, such as dykes and canals. Specifically, large-scale engineering solutions have come to form the technical core of water management in the Netherlands and many large sea barriers were built. Over the years, the development and maintenance of these large walls have shifted into new ways of thinking about water management. Notably, the 2008 programme, “Room for the River” reflects a philosophical shift from flood prevention to a new approach foregrounding “controlled flooding” (Room for the River). Newer approaches to “living with water” now accompany older solutions that were designed to fight the water. Over the years, the Dutch have created multiple solutions, from hard engineering to softer natural systems, in order to address the risk of flooding.
The long history of expertise with water means that natural flood risks have formed a dominant part of the political and cultural landscape in the Netherlands. In 2008 the Veerman Committee of the Dutch government assessed the current state of the many water related programs in the country. The results of this investigation stressed the urgent need to improve water safety in the country, and led to the adoption of the Delta Act. This act resulted in a new national program called the Delta Programme. The programme officially began in January of 2012 and was designed to ensure that regional solutions interconnect and short-term flooding projects interrelate with the long-term vision for flood protection. Specifically, the aim of the Delta Programme was to develop through assessments and collaborative discussions an overarching “Dutch Delta Approach” (Veerman, n.d.). The formation of a Dutch Delta Approach signals the country’s efforts to prioritize the social organization of water management in the country.
In Dutch policy, flood risk is strongly linked to climate change. The threat of climate change is believed to be on a scale from “moderate” to “rapid.” These different scales are used to depict different possibilities for flood risk, called the “Delta Scenarios.” There are four scenarios, two of which include rapid climate change and two of which included moderate climate change (Delta Programme, 2013). Scenarios allow for different ranges of climate related risks.
Dutch policy framed ideal engineering solutions as flexible and adaptive. The Dutch refer to their flood management solution as “adaptive management.” This down-to-earth approach within the Delta Programme is called ‘adaptive delta management’. It is about doing what is necessary, neither too much nor too little, without ruling out future options” (Delta Programme, 2012).
This adaptive solution to manage risk is regarded as timely. A timely solution “matches” the continually changing risk, ensuring that preferred solutions were responsive. By advocating timely solutions, the Dutch remain flexible in their flood management approach. “Flexibility is important to be able to respond to an uncertain future (e.g. the Delta Scenarios)” (Delta Programme, 2013). Technical solutions depend on the specific regional geography. “The character of the Delta dykes differs with the specific situation and the particular design demands a tailored, local approach (Delta Programme, 2012). Both “right time” and “right place” comprise the flexible core of the Dutch solution to flood risk management.
The Delta Programme is designed to implement a collaborative, open, socially aware approach to organizing flood risk management. Parties collaborate throughout the long process leading to the 2014 Delta Decisions. After the landscape of solutions has been mapped out, the solutions are collaboratively narrowed into “solution paths,” which are gradually eliminated through a process of ruling out solutions in the playing field to come to the most “promising measures” (Delta Programme, 2012; 2013).
The scenario-based Dutch approach deals with flood risk in the long-term. “Adaptive delta management is a transparent way of including uncertainty around future developments in decision making. In this context we aim for 2050 with a forward view to 2100” (Delta Programme, 2012). The Delta Act and the Delta Programme are specifically introduced to “steer towards the ongoing implementation programmes vis-à-vis the long term” (Delta Programme, 2012: 18). These future potentials for risk are incredibly important for defining appropriate responses to flood risk. Another aspect of timely solutions is linking short-term decisions with long-term possibilities. To ensure that short-term engineering strategies did not close off future opportunities, the Dutch advocated a “no regret” policy for short-term decisions. Only those decisions that would have little possible secondary impact would be implemented in the short-term. “For the short term, it is also necessary to specify what is required to keep options open for the long term – to be able to move flexibly from one strategy to another in the future” (Delta Programme, 2013).
Overall then, the approach adopted is flexible, collaborative, socially aware and tries to combine short-term with long-term decision making.
Delta Programme Commissioner (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.deltacommissaris.nl/english/
Delta Programme (2012). Working on the delta: Acting today, preparing for tomorrow. Retrieved from http://www.deltacommissaris.nl/english/topics/delta_programme/publications/
Delta Programme (2013). Working on the delta: The road towards the Delta decisions. Retrieved from http://www.deltacommissaris.nl/english/topics/delta_programme/publications/
Donohue, P. (Nov. 1, 2012). “Repairing the New York subway system after Hurricane Sandy may be the MTA’s biggest task yet” New York Daily News. Retrieved from: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/hurricane-sandy-mta-biggest-task-article-1.1195365#ixzz2T4xw4KV5
Goodyear, S. (Jan. 9, 2013). We’re In This Together: What the Dutch Know About Flooding That We Don’t. Retrieved from http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2013/01/were-together-what-dutch-
Hurricane Sandy News Coverage – aka Superstorm Sandy (2012). Retrieved from: http://www.eqecat.com/news/in-the-news/2012/hurricane-sandy/
McQuaid, J. (Oct. 30, 2012). A Dutch Solution for New York’s Storm Surge Woes? Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnmcquaid/2012/10/30/a-dutch-solution-for-new-yorks-storm-surge-woes/
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Minister Schultz and US Sign Agreement to Cooperate on Water-Related Issues (March 8, 2013). States News Service. Retrieved from: https://www.government.nl/latest/news/2013/03/08/minister-schultz-and-us-sign-agreement-to-cooperate-on-water-related-issues
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Room for the River Programme. Retrieved from: http://www.ruimtevoorderivier.nl/meta-navigatie/english/room-for-the-river-programme/
Sharp, T. (2012). Superstorm Sandy: Facts About the Frankenstorm. Live Science. Retrieved from: http://www.livescience.com/24380-hurricane-sandy-status-data.html
Shorto, R. (2014, April 9). How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post Sandy World. The New York Times.
Veerman Committee (n.d.). Retrieved from: http://www.deltacommissaris.nl/english/topics/verman-committee/
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