Controlling floods, the Dutch style! (India can learn from it!)

Controlling floods

On the morning of January 31, 1953, the North Sea brew up a storm which would severely affect the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland. The prediction for the Netherlands looked worst. The Netherlands, literally means “lower countries” referring to its low land and flat geography, and with about 50 per cent of its land exceeding one meter (m) above sea level, the Netherland’s estuaries and tributaries would fill to submerge the land beside it.

The canals, ravines and dykes that had been controlling tributaries and rivers were all damaged due to the World War. The Netherlands was in for a storm of trouble. The combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm tide–further, the winds, the high tide, and the low pressure led to a water level of more than 5.6 m above mean sea level in some locations.

The two-day storm left affected countries drowning. In the Netherlands alone, it claimed about 1,836 lives and the total damage was about 1 billion Dutch guilders. After the 1953 flood, governments realised that similar, if not larger threats, were possible in the future. The Netherlands conceived and constructed an ambitious flood defence system beginning in the 1960s, titled the Project Delta Works.

The works were responsible for 14 major hydraulic infrastructure projects consisting of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers all to shorten the Dutch coastline. An important part of this project was fundamental research to come up with long-term solutions, to protect the Netherlands against future floods. Instead of analyzing past floods and building protection sufficient to deal with those, the Delta Works Commission pioneered a conceptual yet futuristic framework to use as a norm for investment in flood defenses. This was called the “Delta Plan”.

The Delta Plan, along with another hydraulic project– Zuiderzee Works, would go on to make one of the seven wonders of the modern world, owing to its incredible hydraulic engineering feat. One of the structures of the Delta Works is the Maeslantkering, a storm surge barrier on the Nieuwe Waterweg, Netherlands, controlled by a supercomputer. It is one of the largest moving structures on Earth, which closes the dam if the city of Rotterdam is threatened by floods. During the construction, environmental policies were also taken into account in an attempt to preserve the natural life around the estuaries and the coastline.

It was not only the Delta project that was responsible for the Netherlands being well guarded against floods. In 1993 and 1995, the country was under constant threat of flooding. As a result, the Room For River Project was established.

The goal of the programme was to give the river more room to be able to manage higher water levels. This was done by deepening the river beds, relocating dykes, and providing green channels which served as flood bypass.

One of the objectives of the Dutch was not to fight with water but live with it. The government educates people on how to make flood brigades, which can be installed during flood times. The government also made it mandatory for citizens to learn swimming to be useful at times of calamity.

The Netherlands is a great case study for governments to prepare their land and people in a time of calamity. In the Kerala floods, the damage caused is no close to the pain suffered by the people.

The Dutch Works is the frontier for hydraulic engineering and is providing support in all forms. It sends Surge Support Teams in response to crisis around the globe; supplies experts on water and water-related disasters to countries. These teams give advice, leaving implementation to the discretion of the requesting government.