What England can learn from the Dutch about Water Management

28 March 2014

Julian Hunt is a member of the UK House of Lords, former head of the Met Office and visiting professor of fluid mechanics at the Technical University of Delft. Co-authored with IHE Delft's Arthur Mynett, professor of Hydraulic Engineering, Hunt recently published an article on water management in England vs. the Netherlands on the website of The Huffington Post. The UK could learn greatly from the Dutch experience in planning and design of effective water systems for their contribution to agriculture, transport and above all defence against flooding, according to the authors. Source: The Huffington Post

New strategy needed for UK water management

Last month, UK Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband rightly described the recent waves of UK flooding as a "national security" issue. The wettest January in the country for some 250 years left much of the South-West under water. Recent events of extreme, prolonged rainfall, together with river and coastal flooding in Asia across to continental Europe have also been the worst on record. Increasing evidence and scientific analysis is showing why these events are associated with human induced climate change. The related impacts are becoming more widespread and complex, affecting society from health issues to agriculture, from transportation to economics, and becoming more severe, long-lasting and costly with increasing frequency.

To be sure, following the UK floods in 2007 and the Pitt report in 2009, improved collaboration between the Met Office and Environment Agency has led to more accurate and effective forecasts and warnings about floods. However, unprecedented disruption and damage to infrastructure and agriculture following recent floods underlines that a new financial, engineering and management strategy is needed for UK water management. This should be integral to the general improvement of UK infrastructure, recently proposed in the report by Sir John Armitt.

Living below sea level

From our experiences of the science and management of hydrological and meteorological natural disasters, the UK could learn greatly from the Dutch experience in planning and design of effective water systems for their contribution to agriculture, transport and above all defence against flooding (whose effects can be catastrophic given that large areas of the Netherlands are below sea level). Like the vulnerable area of South-West England, flooding in the Netherlands can come from the sea, as during the 1953 floods, and also from intense rainfall in the upstream catchment areas of the Rhine-Meuse river systems coming from Switzerland, Germany, France and Belgium.

The country has learned how to protect against flooding and developed a sophisticated system of almost 3,800 kilometres of flood defences, including earthen levees along the main rivers as well as sand dunes, coastal dikes and five major coastal protection works and storm surge barriers along the coast. The first component is a primary sea defence system constructed as a system of closure works and Storm Surge Barriers in the tidal inlets in the South-West Delta. It is connected by a system of natural dunes and man-made sea dikes that are capable of withstanding 1 in 10,000 year flood events. The Delta Works were completed in the mid-1980s and have withstood higher North Sea storm surges than in 1953 without any problems. Based on studies of future sea level rises and storms associated with climate change, there are plans to raise the dikes by 1-3 metres over the next 100 years.

Room for the river

The Dutch use flood defences to improve harbours and river transportation systems; they build on their tradition of wind mills on dykes to construct modern wind turbines on top of new concrete dykes. This is more cost effective than constructing isolated wind turbines each with their own foundations, saving about 40% of their construction cost.

The second part of the Dutch strategy is a special river flood protection programme: 'Room for the River' introduced after the near-disasters during the 1993-1995 Rhine-Meuse river floods. As the United Kingdom is now urgently considering, flood planes were widened, side channels were dredged, meanders restored, and dikes raised to increase storage capacity of dealing with increasing river floods.

The Dutch government continues to develop and implement measures to deal with expanding cities, industrial growth and potential effects of climate change. And, it is putting aside about 0.5% of GDP annually into a Delta Fund to develop and implement measures to deal with effects of climate change and to prepare for more extreme events in future.

Local involvement & international collaboration

What the Dutch experience shows is that it is key to keep drainage systems up to par, which involves infrastructure (the drainage network) and the drainage capacity (pumps, storage basins etc). Much Dutch money spent on water management goes into the maintenance and operation of these systems. Of course the United Kingdom learnt from the Dutch experience of combining a strong national agency -- Rijkswaterstaat -- for water management when the Environment Agency was established in place of the former Rivers Authorities. However the Netherlands retains a strong regional system even with local taxation.

As the United Kingdom continues to move toward devolved administration, this might include more local involvement again in water management. Internationally, operational collaboration in hydrology is vital for flood movements between the Netherlands and Germany. This is also important for the United Kingdom where rivers connect Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But equally important for UK flood warnings is European collaboration, satellites, weather radar and computer forecasting producing increasingly accurate predictions about rainfall, waves and flood surges.

International collaboration through UN agencies, which have contributed in the past to effective sharing of data, now needs to focus on extreme flood events around the world, by enlarging the UNESCO International Hydrological programme and International Oceanographic Commission, and the World Meteorological Office programme on operational hydrology. The United Kingdom and Netherlands should take a lead role here.

The United Kingdom should also look at the progress of research at Delft University and the Delft Research Programmes which invented the methods now used worldwide, including by the Met Office for forecasting the huge waves being driven on shore in recent storms. While the United Kingdom has excellent university and fundamental science laboratories, the Government could also learn from Dutch policies semi-privatising leading government environmental laboratories, without losing their world class status, because the country's Treasury continued to provide a vital element of government funding for advancing science and technology.


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