Jan Peelen, attaché for infrastructure and water management at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, delivers his PrepTalk at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in September.

By Jill Porte
Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

To understand the Netherlands’ approach to water management, one must understand three concepts: flexibility, sustainability and solidarity.

That’s the message Jan Peelen, attaché for infrastructure and water management at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, delivered during his PrepTalk at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. in September.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency organizes PrepTalks, similar to a TedTalk, so experts and thought leaders can share their knowledge and experiences in the fields of emergency management. The audience attending Peelen’s PrepTalk varied from emergency management managers to students of George Washington University.

He gave his talk to explain how the Dutch manage and live with water.

“Water is in our culture. We are a trading nation. We have been sailing the seas forever,” Peelen said to the audience. “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 go to the beach. We like to sail. But we are very aware of the risks. Enjoy the water but be aware of the risks.”

Flexibility, sustainability and solidarity

Peelen said communities that want to develop a climate-adaptation strategy should incorporate the three concepts he mentioned.

Flexibility is essential, because communities are planning for the long term and need to adapt when the parameters change over time.

Sustainability is another core concept. Any project a community develops to prepare for floods should be judged on its environmental and social qualities and be economically viable for the long run.

Solidarity is equally important. The cost and benefits of water have to be shared within a community. And communities also have to be mindful not to pass the burden of actions or inaction to the next generation or those who will be in office the next term.

Peelen said every country may deal with water management in a variety of ways, but that the level of success largely depends on the way the strategy is supported by governance and the  culture.

The Dutch success in water management, for example, is based on a long-standing tradition of water management that created dedicated organizations and taxes that are able to act on climate change.

This legacy, as well as the ever-present water on the Dutch landscape and education, builds a culture that is aware of the importance of water management.

The Delta Program

To manage climate change, the Dutch government established the Delta Program, a framework that should enable society to deal with the uncertainty that comes with climate change and helps it to adapt within the next century. The concepts of flexibility, sustainability, and solidarity are the core of this framework.

The Dutch Delta Program has had multiple collaborations with the United States and used projects that were created in the Netherlands, such as Room For the River, which was applied when reconstructing the New York City waterside after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The Dutch water community is collaborating with various American partners and communities all along the US coast.

It also provided assistance in developing ideas for more resilient flood defense systems after New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina and New York was confronted with Hurricane Sandy.

Based on this experiences, Peelen emphasized that it is important to keep the cultural diversity of the United States in mind when applying any framework for flood mitigation. What could work in one state might not always be the case in another state, based on governance, cultural norms, and values.

“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 this particular relationship with water should be the foundation of your approach to  flood risks,” Peelen said to the audience.

“Not just from a risk perspective, but also as an opportunity. Everybody wants to be on the water for a reason. But you have to maximize the benefit and reduce the risk. Otherwise, you’ll be dependent on the folks from FEMA to save you every time there is a hurricane.”