As the world watches images of Louisiana flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, it all seems eerily familiar. Not just that it’s similar to post-Katrina flooding, but 2021 has seen some of the worst flooding around the world. From Germany to Turkey to Tennessee to New South Wales, the news seemed never-ending. Hurricane season is entering its most intense phase, so we can expect more flooding news. It is no wonder that floods sit at the top of the risk pile for investors concerned about the impacts of climate change.
To that end, climate change mitigation is the surest way to ensure floods don’t continue to worsen in the future. Communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change, however, so the focus must be on adaptation. At the 2021 World Water Week, one community showcased its integrative approach to flood management.
In 2019, the Dutch prime minister launched the Valuing Water Initiative as an effort to implement the United Nations’ Valuing Water Principles. The Principles were formulated by the High Level of Panel on Water in 2016 to implement Sustainable Development Goal 6 (Ensure available of sustainable management of water and sanitation for all). The idea behind them was to create a common ground starting point for governments, nonprofits, and businesses in solving water problems. The five principles include recognizing the multiple values of water, reconciling disparate values, protect all sources of water, raise public awareness water to enable more inclusive participation, and ensure investment to harness innovation.
With about half the country’s inhabitants living in areas that are below sea level, the Netherlands has a long history of engineering water solutions. Considered one of the leaders in innovative water solutions, the country now faces the same challenges as other countries: what has worked in the past may need to be amplified to deal with the effects of climate change. By creating the Valuing Water Initiatives, the Netherlands is taking a more comprehensive approach to integrating stakeholder needs into water planning. One of the showcases of the Initiative is the city of Dordrecht.
Dordrecht (shown above) is in the southwestern part of the Netherlands and sits at the intersection of the sea and three major rivers, making it prime target for flooding. In fact, Dordrecht is the site of one of the most catastrophic floods in the Low Land’s history: in 1421, when Dordrecht was the capital city of Holland, a major storm caused several of the dykes to break. Around twenty villages around the city were completely destroyed, with casualties of up to 10,000 people. For decades afterward, the city was an island, only accessible by boat, and as a result, Dordrecht lost much of its importance.
With that history in mind—and it was far from the only time the area has flooded over the centuries—the city is now the flagship in the Netherlands for the Valuing Water Initiative. The project focuses on how to change the view of flooding as part of sustainable urban design.
Previously, city planners focused on protecting the city through a system of physical flood defenses such as dikes, storm barriers, and walls, engineered to withstand occasional flooding. But with climate change, they recognized that a multi-layered approach was necessary. The added layers to the project include prevention and preparation, two strategies that can be controversial, so it’s where the necessity of including stakeholder input and attracting enough investment come into play.
Prevention is an essential cornerstone of every successful adaptation strategy in flood-prone areas. Each community or region must decide what is appropriate for their particular situation, based on historical as well as potential modeled outcomes, geology and other local conditions. For example, as part of the prevention strategy, the Valuing Water Initiative recommends Dordrecht not grant building permits in areas proven to be prone to flooding.
This is a serious consideration, regardless of where a community is located. After devastating hurricanes, like Katrina, Harvey, Irma and Michael hit the United States, outdated flood maps and loose permitting requirements became a major topic of conversation. Unfortunately, more often than not, without adequate policies in place to prevent rebuilding in flood-prone areas, we keep seeing the same areas flooded over and over again.
The final layer of the Valuing Water Initiative is preparation; that is, having a plan in place for the flooding inevitably happens. Focusing on the De Staart district in Dordrecht, which sits higher than the rest of the city, planners are developing a multi-faceted approach to getting its residents to safety in the event of a flood. The project includes developing sustainable housing, flexible spaces and a public transportation system to help with evacuations. In many instances, when people do not evacuate areas hit by natural disasters, it is because they cannot afford to leave. Further, it is often the most vulnerable who live in the areas most often hit because that land is the cheapest. Establishing an evacuation plan available to all residents requires input from affected stakeholders as well as significant investment to ensure the success of the plan.
Ida shows climate adaptation is the reality
The recently released IPCC climate report highlighted in the strongest terms that work must be done to stall and reduce carbon and methane emissions to slow the progression of climate change. But it also made clear that we already feel the effects. The intensity and frequency of natural disasters already occurring make undertaking substantive adaptation programs necessary. Without adequate adaptation planning, the economic impacts could be devastating. In order to be successful, they will need policy direction, diverse and inclusive stakeholder engagement, and private investment.
In our modern world, we have the engineering, policy, and financial understanding to develop and integrate sustainable design into adaptation schemes. Building a multi-billion-dollar dike in the Gulf of Mexico may help with a storm surge at the level of Ida, but it won’t stop the flooding from the concomitant rain, and studies show nature-based solutions need to be included. Understanding that these impacts are already here makes the need for a comprehensive plan to manage them imperative. The Dutch have been engineering water management solutions for centuries. As they continue to innovate, other countries should follow their lead.
Image credit: Aron Marinelli/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.