The flooding in Limburg, Belgium and Germany last summer has forced us to face the facts: climate change is here and now and it affects us all. What has this extreme situation taught you?
The flooding made climate change visible. In fact, nine out of ten natural disasters are water-related and the risks and consequences of climate change are increasing in intensity and frequency. No one is ready for the increasing extreme situations, but the Netherlands has shown that it is prepared for extremes such as the one in Limburg.
In recent years, we have invested heavily in the Delta Programme, which reasons on the basis of long-term developments and uncertainties while keeping an eye on the short term, such as dyke reinforcement and evacuation plans. And with the Room for the River
programme, we have made our entire river sustainable, resilient and liveable. As a result, we have been able to prevent the worst in Limburg.
The Room for the River approach has proven successful in the Netherlands, but is only applied on a small scale elsewhere, such as in Poland. This success story deserves more attention and would help Europe to adapt to climate change. It would be fantastic to scale up Room for the River across Europe. That requires looking beyond borders and cooperation and the willingness to innovate with central control.
Can you give an example?
We are also trying to arrange this at the European level, but it is proving difficult. If you look at coastal safety in Europe for example, each country uses a different IPCC scenario, time horizon, financing and governance. This calls for a truly integrated European approach. We are only as strong as our weakest link.
Are there any bright spots?
Until the Paris Climate Agreement, the world was not concerned about adaptation, because it was difficult enough to get all countries committed about the mitigation agenda. Since then, the realisation has grown that even with a 1.5 degree warming, we will be in real trouble. Adaptation measures are then necessary for our survival. Moreover, they are also an opportunity for sustainability, a reset of our economy and a powerful engine for mitigation. It is and-and-and.
In that respect, the Netherlands has a natural advantage because we are the drain of Europe. Rivers flow into the sea here in the delta. Our historic location has forced us to take the lead, but that does mean that we must continue to invest in adaptation measures. Not only in the Netherlands, but also in partnerships across the border, so that together we are in a better position in Europe.
The time for change is now. The coalition for climate adaptation is stronger than ever. The European Union adopted a climate adaptation agenda
for the first time early this year. Last summer’s flood disaster showed us that we really need to work together to implement this agenda, and therefore across borders.
Last summer’s flood is not an isolated event. Floods and droughts are becoming more frequent worldwide. We must arm ourselves against them. What can we learn from other delta regions in the world?
Here in the Netherlands, we believe very much in the systemic approach, while small-scale, local community knowledge is also important to improve water management. Different countries are historically or mandatorily much better at this.
Indigenous knowledge also brings other values, which are not grafted onto the economy, but rather onto the planet, biodiversity and the relationship between water, culture and health. We have lost this knowledge because economic considerations took precedence.
Not so long ago – in the 19th century – the Netherlands was hit by a cholera epidemic. This led to water, sanitation and hygiene becoming the pillars of our first and progressive Housing Act of 1901, designed to eliminate bad housing and promote the construction of healthy homes.
Back then, we already realised that health and a healthy living environment are related to water and we regulated this through a Housing Act. Our systemic approach combined with social involvement and small-scale knowledge is necessary to make the river delta sustainable.