This July, gorged by days of rain, the Meuse River broke its banks, and the Belgian town of Liège was its victim. Waters, the color of old gravy, raced through town, leaving residents floating in canoes, as their homes vanished about them. In the city and its province, over 20 died, including one man who drowned in his own basement.
This corner of Eastern Belgium was not alone. In nearby Germany, around 200 perished, with journalists describing the days of rain as a once-in-a-century event. The financial impact of the disaster was shocking. Near Liège, a single chocolate factory sustained damages worth around €12m (£10m/$13.5m).
Yet, as the mayhem unfolded, one corner of Northern Europe suffered far less. In the Netherlands, the summer flooding was also described as the worst in a century and property damage was severe, but the country survived the days of rain without a single fatality. There are many reasons for this: quick evacuations, strong dikes and robust communication, but what underpins these varied forms of flood defense is an Institution. The Netherlands has “Water Boards” that have protected this waterlogged land for nearly a millennium.
These “Water Boards”, are worth investigating for the way they blend local democracy, direct taxation and crystal-clear transparency. They put water, and the very real prospect of days of rain, at the very core of Dutch life. And the Netherlands is not alone. From the Ethiopian uplands to communities along the Danube, water managers the world over have borrowed aspects of the Dutch model for their own needs, improving life for thousands along the way. They may soon be joined by other regions, as countries the world over face up to the rise in inundation, and days of rain, that come with climate change.
I have to ask, here, if it would be too much of a cultural jump for the U.S. to admit that an idea from another country might have some value, and should be fully investigated. The range wars over water in the western states are already in full swing, with many other parts of the country soon to join them. The modern water management methods of the Dutch are cutting edge when it comes to combating days of rain and drought, but they also have a surprisingly long history.
The “Gemeenlandshuis” (Headquarters of the local Water Board), in the City of Delft, has occupied the same building at 167 Oude Delft since 1645, but some Water Boards trace their history back to the 12th century. “Netherlands” literally means “low-lying country”, and this helps to explain the historical necessity of the Water Boards.
Water Boards have practical modern-day consequences. Like their medieval forebears, Water Boards still fund-raise independently. Households broadly pay two types of tax: to their municipality and to their water board. This independence comes with obvious financial benefits. Unlike elsewhere, where water management jostles for cash with education or housing, the Dutch model “guarantees” the coffers are always full. This is reflected in the statistics: the water boards generate up to 95% of their budgets via their own taxes. Compare that with the American state of Texas, where the US Department of Housing and Urban Development recently announced Houston and its county would get no new funding for flood relief, despite them asking for $1.3bn (£1bn). U.S. bureaucrats still don’t seem to take seriously the days of rain that often accompany hurricanes.
South of Addis Ababa, the Awash River curves languidly for about 700 miles (1,200km) through the Ethiopian heartland. The land is rugged here: many of the hills near the river top 2,000 meters (6,500ft). This is a place that looks and feels as far from the lowlands of Holland as you could imagine. Yet if you know where to look, you can find traces of the Netherlands everywhere. That is true of the dams and dikes lining the Awash, but also in how the waterway is administered, from taxes to representation. Nor are the uplands of Ethiopia unique in this sense. For years, Dutch water managers have carried their knowledge to faraway lands, building relationships with countries from Peru to Vietnam. One of the proponents of this Dutch export of knowledge and expertise said recently, “The need for this program really came from the understanding that in order to adapt to climate change, we need to learn from each other worldwide.” What an amazing idea!!
As this last comment implies, the Dutch are careful never to export their methods wholesale. They try to bring valuable lessons home as well. Today, Dutch water expertise is applied in different landscapes around the world, including in Sub-Saharan African projects. Countries as far apart as Ghana and Romania have benefited from the Dutch “Polderen System” (Polderen is the spirit of cooperation implicit in the concept and implementation of Water Boards).
The impact of climate change is a global phenomenon, and water is at the heart of the problems it creates, whether it is too much water (days of rain), or too little (drought).
The ultimate answer to this issue is bewilderingly complex, encompassing everything from green energy to better planning laws, and not forgetting political will, commitment and money. However, at least for water management, the Dutch model, with its pillars of independence, transparency, collaboration and adaptability to local conditions, could offer lessons, if not solutions. It bears much closer scrutiny.