The Netherlands, used to wet weather, was halfway through what would become one of the wettest juliens ever, and Patrick van der Broeck was getting nervous.
Germany and Belgium faced epochal flooding that would eventually kill 220 people, and the high water poured down on the low-lying Netherlands. “All rain that falls across the border will inevitably find its way to us,” says Mr Van der Broeck, senior hydrologist of the Province of Limburg.
Earlier that month, however, Dutch officials had celebrated the completion of a new flood management project, one that rocked previous such efforts. Rather than further damming the Meuse and its tributaries, as conventional flood control would do, they had decided to work with nature – diverting the water to a 1,300-acre floodplain created to preserve the old overflow channels of the duplicate river.
“I was nervous,” said Mr Van der Broeck. “I wondered if our project would last”,
He had reason to be. Extreme weather events are becoming more common, both in Europe and worldwide. The deadly torrential rains in Europe this summer were considered a 400-year event; in China, more than 20 centimeters of rain fell in just two days; New York City set records for an hour of rainfall, causing flash flooding that killed dozens of people in the region; the drought-ravaged American West is on fire.
Yet no one in the Netherlands was killed in the July floods. Some tributaries wreaked havoc in the border area, but along the Meuse, which swelled to epic proportions, major urban centers remained safe and dry.
The Dutch have experience in water management and have dealt with sea level rise and river flooding long before climate change became a concern. More than half of the country is below sea level, and although the ocean is held back by more conventional flood management methods, river management has changed dramatically.
Mr Van der Broeck’s project, Maaspark Ooijen-Wanssum, a nature reserve near the town of Wanssum, forms the core of the new approach. During the flood, it did exactly what it was supposed to do: absorb so much water that the water level in parts of the Meuse fell by 13 centimeters, enough to prevent a major disaster.
“If we had not cleared the areas to divert the excess water from the Maas, Venlo and Roermond would have been flooded,” says Van der Broeck about two regional cities. “We’ve been working against nature for a long time,” he said. “The river tells us it needs more space. We don’t have to fight that. We have to work with nature.”
The roots of this new thinking go back to two massive floods in the 1990s that forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. Shocked by that disaster, Dutch officials and hydrologists eventually concluded that, with larger floods occurring more frequently and more intensely, erecting flood defenses and digging canals was no longer enough to control the water.
They decided to give the natural flows of large rivers more space, instead of raising the dikes. In 2007, the country began a $2.7 billion project called Room for the River, which has completed more than 30 projects along the Meuse and Rhine to manage flooding by creating watersheds that often mimic natural floodplains.
The Maaspark Ooijen-Wanssum project, which was completed just before the rain shower in July, is a good example of this. An old closed tributary of the Meuse was reopened along waterways used for thousands of years. Some levees were removed to allow water to flow in when needed; others were strategically placed to direct the water through natural channels. Several houses had to be demolished to create more overflow space and therefore more nature.
On a recent visit, water was everywhere, along old riverbeds. Insects buzzed around as elderly Dutch couples rode by on their electric bicycles at the end of a rare sunny day.
Beavers, badgers and a wide variety of migratory birds now inhabit the park, which was mostly farmland before redevelopment. “It’s just very nice to walk here,” says Mr. Vanderbroeck. “It’s an improvement on all fronts.”
The Netherlands is now filled with such river basins, a boon to everyday life, but also doubling as a reservoir for when the rivers swell.
Still, experts say, not enough is being done. While sea defenses are in place (but need constant maintenance) and watersheds have been built along major rivers, the latest downpours have shown that even smaller creeks, ditches and sewers can be deadly.
“I live relatively far above sea level, but during that storm there was so much water that it couldn’t get out through the sewer, so it came through our shower into our bedroom,” says Piet Dircke, director of water management. at Arcadis, a design and engineering firm that is currently helping strengthen coastal flood defenses around Manhattan and helped design the new storm barriers around New Orleans that performed well during Hurricane Ida.
“A combination of extreme rain and lack of places to drain that water can turn small creeks into killers,” he said. “Normally we have water shortages in the summer, so no one would have thought that rain intensities and volumes would be this magnitude. We just don’t have charts for such events.”
Disasters have always propelled Dutch water management. In 1953, the flooding of the North Sea, caused by a combination of high winds, high tides and low pressure, killed 1,835 people after dikes burst at 67 locations in the west of the Netherlands. In response, the Dutch embarked on a plan called Delta Works, which created massive sea defenses to prevent flooding for one in 10,000 years.
Since then, the cabinet has not only created Room for Rivers, but also the Delta Programme, which now oversees all water management in the country. However, July’s extreme rainfall suggests that it is once again time to re-evaluate the country’s flood defenses, Mr. Dirk. “Increasing dikes by 10 centimeters is pointless,” he added, “and we should map sensitive spots.”
By this he means hospitals, schools, nursing homes, computer server facilities and critical infrastructure – all critical to assessing their vulnerability to flooding. “If a retirement home is next to a river, we should consider replacing it because evacuating such vulnerable people during an emergency takes too much time,” said Mr. Dirk.
Such measures require a lot of investment, he and other experts agree. But “if we do nothing, the costs will be much higher,” says Peter Glas, head of the Delta Programme. He warned that if the Netherlands fails to take sufficient measures to protect critical infrastructure, credit rating agencies could downgrade bonds from their current triple A status.
“Climate change is here,” said Mr Glas. “We have to adapt. If you don’t want to do it for the planet or for your safety, do it for your wallet.”
Rosanne Kropman and Ilvy Njiokiktjien contributed reporting.