The Dutch develop smarter flood defences

It is well-known that considerable parts of the Netherlands lies below sea-level (some 25 percent in fact). What is less-appreciated however, is that a considerable 60 percent of Dutch people live in these vulnerable areas, and a huge 70 percent of economic output is concentrated below sea-level.

With global warming and rising sea-levels adding extra risk to the task of keeping the water out, the Netherlands has no room for error in preparing its flood defences in a high-stakes battle against nature. Should they fail their task, the whole country would be flooded under 3 feet of water within a week.

However, fortunately for the Dutch (and expats living in the Netherlands!), they can call upon centuries of experience with flood-defence design, construction and maintenance. Ever since the 13th century, the Dutch have developed an intricate system of dikes, flood basins and sea defences to defy the inevitable. And now, the Dutch have access to new "smart" technologies to add to their armoury.

The Netherlands is installing new monitoring technology into the dikes themselves, to ensure that loads and pressures are distributed evenly, and to alert the authorities to any dangers of system failure. "We've been adapting for 1.000 years. That's nothing new. It's just that climate change is going faster than it was before," remarks Lennart Silvis, the operational manager of the public-private Netherlands Water Partnership.

With around 3.000km of outer sea-dikes and around 10.000km of inner, canal and river dikes (the Netherlands has 6.000km of busy inland waterways), the job of monitoring Dutch flood defences is a challenge, even for the most experienced operators in the world.

In addition to smart dikes, the Dutch are also using satellites to monitor and control the flood defences with unprecedented accuracy and speed. The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) uses radar images from the European Earth observation satellites Envisat and ERS-2, using space technology to supplement historical measures.

In January 2012, the defences were tested by water-levels that reached a 14-year high. Rainfall in December was 152mm, twice the average amount, and 800 people had to be evacuated. In Groningen, the water levels were just 7cm from the windows of the city's flagship museum. Yet, the defences held and passed their test.

Flood defence is a global issue, with Dutch water-management experts providing expertise all over the world, from New Orleans, to St. Petersburg and Jakarta. The knowledge and skills developed and tested here in the Netherlands, will help lead the world to build better protection globally.


James Shaw


James Shaw

James is an assistant editor at IamExpat, and is the newest member of the team. Interests include travelling, parties, and his beloved Manchester United. From Manchester, UK, but now living...

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