Dutch lessons to keep Indian feet dry

  • The devastating floods that swept Srinagar in September pose a critical question: Can India acquire the capacity to mitigate the impacts of such catastrophes?
  • The experience of the Netherlands, a country where more than half of the land is under constant threat of flooding from the seas and rivers, provides an interesting example of how it can be done.
  • The Netherlands became a viable country eight centuries ago when separate territories surrounded by water were linked. This “land below the sea” has since built its economic fortunes around a vast system of dikes, and institutions of water democracy. “Polders” — as inhabited lands are called — were turned into productive agricultural and dwelling sites. A crippling flood in 1953 that killed many reinforced the nation’s resolve to further strengthen its defences using science and technology.
  • The national goal is to “keep Dutch feet dry” and it has helped the Netherlands focus on new challenges posed by rising sea levels and intense rainfall linked to climate change.
  • A twin approach
  • Dutch research into water management has produced software that can simulate floods, assess the impact of catastrophic events and help contain the havoc of a disaster.
  • On the ground, the Netherlands is building improved flood management barriers, ranging from strong dikes that can withstand the severest floods to off-the-shelf portable reinforcements
  • “The question is not whether we want to do it, but how — with concrete and steel or in a more natural way,” the Dutch Minister for Environment and Infrastructure, Melanie Schultzvan Haegen-Maas Geesteranus told this writer and other journalists recently.
  • Holland is adopting a twin approach:a mix of hard engineering and soft, return-to-nature initiatives — to ensure the well-being of 9 million people who live in vulnerable areas mainly in the west of the country, which also yields three quarters of its GDP. The government has set itself the goal of sharply lowering risk to people and economic assets, under which the probability of dying from a flood should be no more than one in 1,00,000.
  • Building confidence in such risk modelling requires a commitment to research. The Netherlands has, through organisation such as Deltares, developed the expertise to scientifically estimate the number of people at risk of death and the economic losses to
  • infrastructure segments
  • The government at The Hague follows a rigorous programme of managing its deltas and has set out its goals in the Delta Programme 2015 document.
  • The KNMI, or the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, is adopting climate scenarios similar to those used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  • Equally important, the government is taking into account scenarios for soil subsidence,ranging from 10 cm per century, to a peak of 60 cm in two areas, Flevopolder and Groningen.
  • Given the country’s geographical handicap, innovation in water management is the obvious national priority.
  • The Rhine river is being broadened at 30 locations under the Room for the River project (by contrast, Srinagar’s Dal lake has shrunk to less than a third of its size eight centuries ago, and several wetlands have been lost in the valley).
  • Architects in Holland’s Delft region are designing large houses that float in man-made flood capture areas.
  • Spread to other countries
  • In another important initiative, freshwater use is being made efficient.
  • As seawater levels rise, affecting the quality of soils, salt water-tolerant agriculture is the focus of research.
  • The expertise developed by the Netherlands has been deployed in places are far apart as New Orleans and Jakarta.
  • In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, engineering firms constructed new delta infrastructure in Louisiana against high water,
  • The choice of both hard and soft solutions in the Dutch programme is of interest to all countries that face the impact of climate change: fewer days rainfall annually than the historical average, but with greater intensity.
  • Some governments, Minister Schultz van Haegen points out, are looking for quick solutions that can be showcased for electoral gains, and not opting for sustainable development. “We tell them you need to take more time, and look at downstream and upstream effects,” she says.
  • India has an ongoing engagement with the Netherlands on several aspects of development.The management of water that Dutch expertise seems uniquely promising, and capable of helping India face an uncertain climate future.