The Sunday Magazine·THE SUNDAY EDITION

What the Dutch can teach the world about managing floods

Tropical cyclones are routine in many parts of the world, but experts agree that Hurricane Harvey was intensified by the unusually high temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico’s balmy waters. They also agree that there will be many more catastrophic weather events, as the world's climate continues to change. One country already has a great deal of expertise when it comes to keeping things dry. David talks to Dutch water expert Henk Ovink, who travels the world advising governments on how to reduce loss of life and property damage caused by floods.
August 30, 2017 - A woman is helped from her flooded home in Port Arthur Texas, by volunteers. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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.

As sea levels rise and so-called "once-in-a-lifetime" storms like Hurricane Harvey become more intense, communities around the world are scrambling to find ways to deal with water that falls from the sky or encroaches on shorelines from the sea.
Villagers collect drinking water at a village in the Indian state of West Bengal on August 23, 2017. More than 750 people have died in floods across South Asia, and the human toll is steadily rising. There has been a series of deluges since August 10, as the annual monsoons hits the north and east of the region. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Henk Ovink was recently appointed by the Dutch Cabinet as the first Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He is Principal of Rebuild by Design and was Senior Advisor to the former U.S. Presidential Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task.
Henk Ovink has been described by the New York Times as "the globe-trotting salesman-in-chief for Dutch expertise on rising water and climate change." He is the Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Netherlands, and Principal Advisor to Rebuild by Design, a design competition that develops and implements proposals to promote resilience in the region affected by Hurricane Sandy.
The Netherlands. Viewed from a U.S. Army helicopter, a Zuid Beveland town gives a hint of the tremendous damage wrought by the flood to Dutch islands in 1953. 2,551 people were killed (1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in England, 28 in Belgium, 19 in Scotland, 361 at sea), 9% of total Dutch farmland was flooded, 30,000 animals drowned and 47,300 buildings were damaged, of which 10,000 destroyed
​His message is simple.

"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."


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