Interview — The Dutch make room for the river

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Article Published 30 Aug 2018 Last modified 29 Aug 2023
7 min read
Photo: © Rijkswaterstaat the Netherlands / Werry Crone
Nature and water go hand in hand. This is the thinking behind the Dutch Room for the River programme. This back-to-basics approach now serves as a global model in terms of water management and protection against increased risks of flooding linked to climate change. The most recent extreme floods in 1993 and 1995 served as a wake-up call, according to Willem Jan Goossen from the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. We asked him what the programme represents in terms of sustainable flood protection.

What would have been the alternative to the Room for the River programme?

We would have had to focus solely on reinforcing existing dikes, which over recent decades have been constructed relatively close to the river. But that would not be good enough to reduce the flooding risk, which is quite high in the Netherlands. The Room for the River programme was developed as a result of the relatively high discharge volumes of the Rhine and Meuse rivers in 1993 and 1995. These floods led to the evacuation of more than 200 000 people (and a million head of livestock).

We discovered that increasing the volume of river water would result in lower levels of water flow overall, allowing us to break free from the vicious cycle of constantly increasing the height and strength of the dikes. We also realised that there was a lot of sedimentation taking place in the floodplains, filling the areas between the dike and the river. This reduces the river flow and leads to higher river water levels in comparison to surrounding land.

What is the current status of specific projects under the Room for the River programme?

The programme is implemented through 20-30 specific projects. Starting 12 years ago, almost all are now completed, with the last one or two projects nearing completion in 2018. With the Room for the River programme now ending, we are now preparing for a new stage — a reinforcement or renewal of the same programme.

We undertook a lot of research looking at new insights on more effective coastal and river flood protection and we came up with a new analysis and new safety standards for our dikes and coastal defences. Local communities, provinces and water boards were also involved. We did that within the Dutch Delta programme and these new standards have been in force since early 2017. As a result of the new rules, we have a new project for another 20-30 years and we are currently in the midst of identifying structures in our river system to be reinforced. But, this time, in combination with Room for the River aspects.

What challenges has the programme encountered?

Room for the River has been well received overall, but this was not the case when we started. There has traditionally been strong support for flood protection measures in the Netherlands. But there have also been some ‘not in my backyard’ reactions as always, especially if a dike reinforcement results in houses demolished to construct dikes.

Similarly, the idea that we were going to buy agricultural land and transform it into floodplain areas was not well received at first either. For centuries, generations of farmers worked to develop natural areas into agricultural land. So this land use change from farmland to floodplain was quite the opposite of farmers’ views in the past, but their views have been changing and they have been increasingly supportive.

One of the key successes of the project was to make sure that the participation of municipalities and local inhabitants was taken seriously. The central government, together with Rijkswaterstaat, the owner of our main river and highways network in the Netherlands, gave local communities the option to come up with alternative plans if they met the Room for the River goals to reduce water levels. The aim of this approach was to gain local buy-in and support for the Room for the River programme.

How much has been spent on the programme and are there any ongoing costs?

The budget for the entire project is around EUR 2.3 billion. As for ongoing costs, there is an intense debate on the future of flood protection after Room for the River as well as the maintenance of completed projects.

For example, one of the problems in the creation of floodplains is that we have to make sure we keep tree growth in check. If we leave them to grow, they can reduce the speed of the river flow. So we cut a number of trees on an annual basis, as a part of the overall effort to ensure that the whole river system can handle high water discharges. If we leave it completely to nature, we would have to increase the levels and strength of the dikes even further. Actually, a cost-benefit analysis showed that cutting the trees is more cost-effective.

We are also looking at whether river sediment can be moved from floodplains, down-river to delta areas where we have a lack of sedimentation. Dike maintenance is also important. Dikes have to undergo maintenance and checks every year and traditionally after 30-40 years they have to be reinforced. Now with climate change, you will have to carry out improvements every 14 years. So it is a new systemic approach, where you have to take account of changing climate impacts, including higher sea levels, and increase the levels of protection accordingly.

Can the project serve as a model for Europe and the world?

For more than 20 years we have had river-based cooperation organisations for each of the big rivers, like the Rhine, the Meuse, the Scheldt and the Emse, which flow in from other countries. Cooperating on flood protection with countries like Germany or Belgium has been top of the agenda and this has led to good cross-border coordination on many projects. And, further, everybody is adopting the Room for the River approach.

Working with nature is getting more and more support these days and I think rightly so. I have been involved in visits from all over the world, including Asian countries, where floodplains have traditionally not been valued at all. For them it was purely a case of economic and agricultural development, making the same mistakes we did. If you keep your floodplains and protect them as they are, you can still maintain your economic development while being flexible and resilient in dealing with the risks.

What have been the side benefits of the project?

While 95 % of the budget was focused on water safety, we had some small amounts for other targets, which turned out to be quite good in improving the quality of life for locals most affected by the projects. This included new houses for those people that owned houses on floodplains or new harbours for local communities. Take the city of Nijmegen, located on the Waal river, near the German border, where a new river park, new bridges and a new river-front development contributed to improving the local quality of life, while at the same time expanding floodplains.

New recreational areas were also important for the Netherlands, which has quite a high population density. This also added value to local communities, while also preserving traditional old villages and characteristics of the Dutch landscape, which is also important for tourism. This same approach was adopted for coastal areas to preserve dunes and beaches.

The Netherlands has a love-hate relationship with water. Is this a battle you can win, especially with the challenge of climate change?

It is a battle we have been fighting for centuries. In the Dutch psyche, the 1953 flood still reverberates today and has a great influence over our current water policies. We had more than 1 500 casualties and, as a result of those floods, the Dutch people see (river and sea) flood protection as a top priority and expect their government to make sure preventative measures are in place. Water is in our genes and it even has an impact on our way of governance with the ‘polder model’, which is at the heart of our culture and approach.

The question today is how fast climate change will hit us. We are well aware of the changing climate and its impacts and that our present threat is quite different from what we will see in a few decades’ time. As for winning, I am sure that we will be able to cope with it at least for this century and possibly even longer, but only if we have the right strategy. The risk is out there, so our challenge is to stay resilient, and adaptation is key.


Room for the River Programme

More than half of the Netherlands lies below sea level, making the country extremely vulnerable to flooding from sea and inland rivers. The Dutch have for centuries battled to hold back water by building dikes, levees and sea walls. Extreme inland flooding in 1993 and 1995 led to a new, more sustainable approach, embracing nature-based solutions to help protect against flooding. The Room for the River programme complements existing defences to reduce the risk of future flooding disasters. Billions of euros were invested in 30 specific projects, which include restoring natural floodplains, wetlands, dike renewal and de-poldering. All are meant to bolster existing defences and improve the capacity and flow of the biggest cross-country delta rivers to deal with fast-rising waters.


Willem Jan Goossen,
Senior policy adviser on climate adaptation and water

Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management
The Hague, Netherlands