Dutch flood defences show what can be achieved with investment

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

In 1953, The Netherlands was struck by one of the most destructive storms in its history. Winds pummeled the western coast of this low-lying country and water surged into the towns and cities near the coast.

Almost 2,000 people died and, as a result of the tragedy, the Dutch government began an ambitious, long-term plan to defend its country against the sea.

The centrepiece of that plan is the Delta Works programme in the south west of the country. Completed in 1997 with the opening of the enormous Maeslantkering storm surge barrier near Rotterdam, this is a system of 13 dams and moveable gates that sit in the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta.

The system cost tens of billions of euros over more than four decades and includes thousands of kilometres of dikes and canals that can carry away excess water and levees along the coasts.

Each arm of the Maeslantkering barrier, which can protect the port city of Rotterdam against storm surges up to three metres higher than normal, is the size of the Eiffel Tower. Within a few hours, these huge steel structures can be moved into place to block the channel that flows to the city.

The Netherlands spends €1 billion every year maintaining large-scale flood defences like these. In a country where 40% of the land is below sea level and 60% of the country at risk from floods, they have little choice.

But not every measure to protect against flood waters is so huge.

Inspired by old Dutch canal boats, architects in Delft have also designed homes that float, moving with the water around them as it rises and falls. They might be a little more expensive than a traditional home, but the flexibility and safety they can afford to people in flood-prone regions is surely worth the extra cost.

And in the centre of Rotterdam, which like other cities is covered in concrete, locals have found innovative ways to let rain water flow around without causing damage.

Green roofs and small parks and gardens absorb water, restoring the city's ability to return water to the ground instead of running off onto the footpaths and around buildings. And at Water Square, the sunken public space can be used as a basketball court or amphitheatre on dry days. But if heavy rain falls, it also acts as a temporary reservoir to control the flow of excess water.

Architects in Delft have designed homes that float. Credit: ITV News

Arnoud Molenaar, Rotterdam's Chief Resilience Officer, says that the Dutch have water management in their DNA. It helps that just under half of their country is below sea level, so keeping water at bay is critical to their survival. But he says his fellow countrymen are also good at thinking long-term and translating their needs in 100 years' time into points for action today.

That's reflected even in the huge infrastructure projects such as the Maeslantkering barrier. After I was shown around the facility by manager Mark Walraven, he told me that, although the barrier's design takes into account future sea-level rise due to climate change, it will only be effective for about a century.

After that, they will need something even more impressive to keep the flood waters at bay.