PrepTalks: Jan Peelen “Living with Water: How the Netherlands Prevents Flood Disasters”


[PrepTalks Theme Playing] I have the pleasure of being the odd one
out on these sessions because I’m not
talking about emergency management, I’m talking about prevention. Why? Because
that’s where the Netherlands is good at. We are the masters of prevention, of
flooding, and I’ll show you why. And you will see an awful lot of pictures of
beautiful projects, great infrastructure, but that’s not the lesson I want you to
take with you. The lesson that I want you to take with you from my talk is more
about culture, it’s about living with water. This is the Netherlands, at least
this is Rotterdam. The Netherlands, for those who’ve never been there,
shame. We are with 17 million people in a country more or less a little bit bigger
than the state of Maryland. We are quite industrious. We are one of
the top 20 global economies. We have the biggest port outside of China. We have a
huge airport, if you ever fly in Europe, big chance that you flew through
Amsterdam. And we have an awful lot of rivers, like you can see on the picture.
We have four European rivers that all flow through our country. And that
actually becomes a little bit of a problem because 60% of our country is
prone to flooding. 30% of our country is actually below sea level, because we did
what we did in the past, we started to live in a swamp and when we found out
that we need more lands, we actually reclaimed land. So 60% is prone
to flooding and, you probably guessed it, that’s the part where most people live.
That’s the part where most of our economy is situated. Through this, and
actually as you can see on the pictures, we have been reclaiming land since the
14th century. So we have some experience in water management and actually that’s
not always a success. It’s trial and error. Every 60 or 50 years, we would
have a flood here and there. And actually that ended with the big one, as we call
it, or the flood in 1953. 1800 people died. Economic damages were enormous. And this
is 1953 and the Netherlands said no more. We are not going to give way to the
water anymore. And so we started something that was pretty well known in the
engineering world. It’s called the Delta Works, a complete
system of dikes and storm surge barriers that basically shorten our coastline and
strengthen it. This is actually a fortress against the sea. And actually if
I talk to Americans about how we live with water, how we see water, I always
make the comparison that we talk about water as people in DC talk about
national security, because for us this is national security. So we started
this project the Delta Works in the 50s, after the big disaster, under the creed
“no more”. And we actually made this a, this was actually a bit
comparable to the Apollo project. This was our moonshot. You guys wanted to go
to the moon, we wanted to make sure we would never flood. And it was a long-term
project. Actually this is the Maeslantkering barrier, this is the last project we
finished and finished in the 90s. So you would think that after this one we felt
pretty happy, we were safe. Well not actually because we were already
realizing that when we finished this project, we have a whole new set of
challenges. Why? We had riverine floods, so we’re safe from the sea and then you
have a riverine flood. This is not sustainable transportation (audience laughs). We get more and more intense rainfalls in urban cities, but also in our rural parts. We actually have droughts. This is the same river that caused the surfer to use the A2 highway. This river now was basically dry during the summer of 2008. This is
new for us, we’re the country that keeps the water out, not the country that keeps
the water in. So for us you know, climate change is clear and present. It’s not
some boogeyman that will maybe show up in ten years. No we’re actually feeling
it right now. And we have to prepare our country for this. But there’s a lot of uncertainty. Like how much will the sea-level rise?
Do we get like more discharge in the rivers or less? What do the temperatures
look like? And we actually created after the Delta Works, now what we call the
Delta Programme. The Delta Programme is not a policy, it’s a framework. It’s a framework
for us to deal with uncertainty that comes with climate change. We know it’s
coming and we have a kind of a feeling how it’s going to look like, but we’re
not sure. So dealing with uncertainty, that’s the policy. And actually in that
policy, we have made provisions for money flows. We actually changed our laws
so we know that, in a case of an emergency, who is doing what. And we also
put like a creed in it, and that’s three words, and actually I want you to
remember those three words because I think that’s a valuable lesson for our
American counterpart. First concept is flexibility. Be flexible, know how to deal
with uncertainty, but also be flexible. This might be your authority,
this might be your job, but you might be a little bit flexible about it. It’s
also about sustainability not so much, of course it’s sustainable as
ecological friendly, but also economical. Whatever we do it, has to have a good
business case. It has to be used for more than just flood prevention. And then it’s
a very European word, as an American colleague said, the word is solidarity.
We’re in it with the whole group. It’s not like you on your
own and me on your own, no we really have to work together to pull this one
off. And we’re actually adapting those principles in projects like this one,
which is a new coastal protection system. We had to enforce our Coast. We could
choose for just a big seawall because that’s actually what the engineers
calculated. The problem is that would destroy the local economy, who’s you know
dependent on tourism from the beach. So instead of building the wall we just
started to do a beach enlargement to reduce wave energy. And we actually
splurged a little bit on design. We pulled resources and we actually made a
project. Most people who now visit Scheveningen and don’t know that they’re
actually walking on a coastal defense structure. They just think that we just
beautified the boulevard. Same here at the river. We actually had to create more capacity for the river, to prevent flooding.
Instead of building higher levees, we made room for the river, which is
actually a program of ours. We created a bypass, so that a river can flood in
times of high discharges. And we actually designed the bypass as a park. So actually
the city now has a park where people can enjoy the water, they can swim, because
they couldn’t swim in the river, because it’s much too much traffic. And all of a
sudden they have this amazing opportunity for suburban development. We
also start to accept that we will have some nuisance flooding. For example, this
is the city of Rotterdam, that’s basically refurbishing their public
space so certain spots can actually flood and retain water. This is a
beautiful art garden and in times of heavy rain it’s a water storage center.
And we don’t only fight nature, we actually have to work with nature. And
here, this is an example it’s called the sand engine. We actually use the river,
the tides, and the winds to disperse sand. Instead of doing all these beach
nourishments along our sandy coast, we now put one big beach nourishment in place,
and let nature do the rest. This whole new method and uncertainty also means
that we have to reimagine the engagement with our citizens. Our citizens are used
to being safe. They literally tell you we pay taxes, you do your job, we’re the best
in flood management right, so nothing to worry about.
We now have to make sure that these people are aware of the fact that we
might not be able to protect them from everything that’s going to happen in the
next 20, 30, 50 years. For example, we have these apps, it’s called “Will I Flood”. You
put in your zip code and we actually give people advice that, it
could happen. For example, if there’s a 10% chance this will happen in your lifetime, you will flood. How bad will it be? In this case it will be like two feet. What
does it mean? So basically, we give people not just an insight into what’s their
risk, but also if it’s going to happen what should they do. And this actually is
already sparking discussion within our citizens. We don’t do this
just into you in the Netherlands, we also reach out to American colleagues. Why?
Because we feel that the storms you are experiencing are much worse than what we
experience. So whatever we think of, if it works in your cities, it will
probably work with ours as well. This is for example Charleston. I’ve been in
Charleston a couple of weeks ago. We do workshops with them and we actually
preparing plans to make Charleston safer. And actually they are already honing in
on the whole solidarity process. They really pushed us to engage with all
communities who are present in the Charleston area. Norfolk is another partner of ours.
Norfolk actually did realize that they are in high risk for flooding and they
asked us not to just think with them about you know how we can prevent
flooding, but also how can we actually use the investments that we want to do
in resilience to create a better quality of life in our city. How can we adjust
our infrastructure? How can we create a better functional city center? And then
there’s New York, after Sandy. We had a very close partnership after that. We actually
sent some of our top senior executives to New York to run the
Rebuild by Design competition. A lot of companies and institute’s from the
Netherlands were involved in the rebuild efforts. You know, designing a better,
newer New York. And what we actually learned from New York and our engagement
there was the whole outreach. The way you, in the US can actually mobilize all
these civic communities was unheard of for us and we actually learned from that
an awful lot. And then there is Louisiana. The city of New Orleans in
the state of Louisiana are our oldest partner in the U.S. And what you see is
that they are now, after more than a decade of communication, they
really have developed their own resilience culture. The concepts that we
use that make our water culture so unique, flexibility sustainability and
solidarity, they actually took that and gave it their own spin. So if you look at
their coastal program, it definitely has Dutch DNA, but it
certainly has a Louisiana flavor (audience laughs). So the best of both worlds, right? So actually we
are very proud on this collaboration with our U.S. partners. Why? Because like I
said, we are very much aware that we are facing a whole new set of
challenges, and we are pretty sure that we can actually
engineer an awful lot of the stuff, and we can actually design beautiful
landscapes. I mean we’re showing it off right here
in the U.S. and you will all love it. But we’re also very curious about what
we can learn from you guys. I just mentioned the fact that you have
hurricanes, which are much more stronger than, we will never get a category-5. It’s
never going to happen. But if we can develop things that work for
you guys, it will work for us. And also this is you know, we’re here with the
Emergency Management Associations. We are so good in prevention, that we never
thought about actually managing something if something happens. And we
really want to learn from you guys because we actually have
to make the trip from prevention to adaptation to Emergency Management.
From my experience, you guys are actually walking the other way. You come from
handling crises and you’re now trying to more focus on management. And actually
that’s, from a Dutch perspective, a great strategy. Do you like, if you do an
investment, and return of investment of seven dollars for each dollar? No? I will
take it anyway. I will take it to the bank (audience laughs). But that’s actually the return on investment the Army Corps gets, more or less, on their levees. So, you know prevention is always better than handling a crisis.
And actually you, as emergency management community, have a large role in that
because you know what can go wrong. So you are actually one of the, you know,
the frontrunners in creating a community of resilience, not just from managing a
disaster, but actually trying to reduce the risk, and actually enjoy the fact
that you live in an area that might have risks. Because that’s what we do. This is
a picture that’s really the Netherlands. This is water for me. This is actually a
maritime museum, and that’s actually a reproduction of a 17th century trade
ship. So for the Netherlands, water is in our culture. It has been, we’re a trading
nation. We’ve been sailing the seas forever. It’s the source of our wealth.
But it’s also something that’s really personal for us. We like to enjoy the
water. We like to swim in it/ We like to sit next to it. We like to sail.
But it’s also, and we’re very aware, it’s also a risk. So these people are enjoying
the water and that’s actually what we think is the best way to enjoy the
water. But be very much aware of the risks. And in the U.S. you have an enormous
country, with very different cultures. If you go from Boston to Florida or from
Florida to Texas, you have all these communities, and everybody has their own
relationship with water. And we think that we need to use that
relationship with water as a base for handling flood risks, not just from an
emergency perspective but also as an opportunity. I mean, everybody wants to
be on the water. Try to buy real estate at the water ,you know that’s prime real
estate. It’s also a prime risk. And if you can handle that, that’s fine. But you have
to handle it, if not now, otherwise you’ll have the folks from FEMA at your door or
in your boat at the next hurricane. that’s more or less my story and I hope
that you wrote three words down, flexibility, sustainability, and
solidarity. Hang it above your bed or in your desk and talk about with colleagues, like how can we use these words, these concepts, as a
framework to look at all the projects were involved. Where can we be more
flexible to, you know make projects feasible. Where can we actually make
investments and flood preparation enjoyable, not during the floods, but for
the entire time we don’t use it? And how can we actually break the silo? How can
we really make a community feel to work with this? Because this is not something
that you are going to solve. This is not something the real estate people are going to
solve. This is not something that the insurance industry is going to solve. No, this
is actually going to be a team effort. That’s my talk for today. [Audience applause] Well that’s always the the problem. Money. And I think that an awful lot of these projects that you know that we
consider really successful, they didn’t start with the budget. You know, talking
about the budget, it’s easy. We don’t have a budget, so there’s no project. I
recently was with a couple of people from FEMA in the Netherlands and one of
the project managers told me we don’t talk about budget, we talk about values.
What do you think is important? Why do you think, you know what is the value you
want to create? So with looking at, you know, what you know what is it worth,
instead of what do we have. And that actually starts a whole, basically you turned it to the discussion upside down. And then you
start working your way through, okay this is what it’s worth. This is what we
value at it. Then you can talk about budget. For example the project Scheveningen –
again we didn’t have a budget to do a whole swanky Boulevard.
We had a budget to build a wall. But we discussed, okay we we find
that it’s not the right value. So we said okay what do we do want? And then you
start looking for four ways to leverage the funds. Because you know then there’s
an investment opportunity. And that’s my idea and that’s actually what
I see in the U.S as being successful. Talk about a value proposition first and
not about, talk about what you want, and not what you can or can’t. Well we always say to you
or to Asian partners or European partners, don’t copy us. You know, we are a
unique country with unique assets and values. And that’s why I
didn’t want to talk with you guys about our engineering or finance. That’s
something that’s you know, for us. I mean, you have your own
engineers. You have your own system. I wanted to talk about these values like
flexibility, sustainability, and solidarity because you can’t copy us. You
are a different country. You are a different world. And you have to find
your way in your own system. For us, it’s historic. In the Netherlands we
always say that the culture in the Netherlands, which is really all focused
on compromise and not so much about leadership, is because of the water.
Because we always had to cooperate in keeping our feet dry, keeping the levees
in place. Nobody could really be in charge because you always needed your
neighbors to work with you. So yeah for a part, that’s really cultural.
On the other hand, if I look to for example the engagement we have in
Charleston right now, there’s also solidarity. Actually the city, and this
actually started with people from the Emergency Management community, they
actually said okay we really have to engage all the types of
communities within our city to be on board, because this is actually is gonna
really impact the future of our cities. And that’s actually some of the assets
the U.S. has. You have these civic groups, you know. If something happens you have
all these civic groups that mobilize themselves. And it’s I think you have to
find a way to mobilize all that energy around this point, in certain communities.
The discussion might be much much less urgent in Nebraska, than it is in the
lowlands of the Carolinas. And it’s same along the coast. The discussion in Boston
has a whole new different dynamic, than in Florida. So it’s really you know a
local culture. You really have to find your way. But yeah for us
you know, the whole solidarity process, for example, you guys have insurance my
next speaker will talk about insurance. We don’t have insurance. We just have the
feeling like we are actually investing in this. People pay for it and we have to
do it as a group. And by the way it’s actually not feasible, as well. Because we
actually had insurance before the flood of 53. After the flood of 53, people
realized that if we insure everybody, the insurance industry would be bankrupt.
So it’s it’s also a matter of and the necessity, we have to do this together
because there’s not an insurance premium you know insurance firm that’s going to
bail us out. [PrepTalks Theme Playing]

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