What the Dutch can teach the world about managing floods
The hurricane that has devastated Texas and Louisiana — and the catastrophic flooding in Sierra Leone and South East Asia — serve as sobering reminders of just how powerful and deadly water can be.
There's one country that has about a thousand-year head start in learning how to manage water. The Netherlands was wrested from the North Sea, and about a third of the country lies below sea level. With its complex system of dikes, pumps and sand dunes, the Netherlands has one of the most sophisticated anti-flood systems in the world.
The Dutch have discovered that it's better to find ways to let the water in, rather than fighting to keep it out.
"The cities and the systems we have are not fit for the future," he says. "We must change the way we think about water management, not just after a flood, but before they happen, and we must change the way we think about water management."
Water is not an enemy. It was never an enemy. It's not a fight, because you will always lose.- Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Netherlands
"It's building walls, but it's also letting the water in. Living with water really means that you have to understand water's capacity, and water brings a lot of good - we need it for our food, we need it for drinking. At the same time, it can be dangerous when we have too much, or dangerous when we have too little."
"By bringing building with nature and living with water into the equation, you don't end up with big walls that try to protect you, but have their limits. Sea levels rise, and at a certain point in time, walls will topple over. No, the system becomes more flexible. There's more redundancy, more resiliency, and it's more adaptive to these future stresses. And that's exactly what we do in the Netherlands."
Prior to his mission to take Dutch water management expertise around the world, Ovink was the Netherlands' chief of water management and spatial planning . For two years, he was senior advisor to former President Barack Obama's Hurricane Sandy recovery task force. He oversaw the development of six projects that are now being built, intended to help to protect New York City the next time it finds itself in the path of a catastrophic hurricane.
Ovink says the city has already learned some simple lessons that can be shared with other cities preparing for floods.
"After Hurricane Sandy, there were examples where hospitals or office buildings were flooded, and there were shorts in the electricity system of the building. So they moved that critical infrastructure two floors up. It doesn't mean that the building does not flood when there is an extreme event, but the vulnerability becomes less. So this can be incrementally done. You don't need to wipe out the whole city and build a new one next to it."
Ovink has been casting a professional eye on the damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey. He has some advice to offer.
"The rebuilding of Houston in response to Harvey should not be a response to this disaster. It should be done in preparedness for the future. Otherwise, you build back what you just lost, and it's only repair, and with the next storm event, it will flood again."
Ovink's overall message is one of hope — learning to work with, rather than against, water.
"Water is not an enemy. It was never an enemy. It's not a fight, because you will always lose. Resiliency actually means you're not only bouncing back after such a disaster, you improve. You bounce back better."