Past and future of flood management in the Netherlands: a visit to the Delta Works

At the end of the taught part of their Master, IHE Delft Water Management and Governance students visited the Watersnood museum and the Delta Works in the South West of the Netherlands. Moline Chauruka collected her classmates’ impressions and reflections on floods and water infrastructures.  

Some of the Water Management & Governance Students 2020-2022 and staff on the Vrouwenpolder beach

A journey heading Southwest of Netherlands kicked off in the early morning of Tuesday the 26 of October 2021. IHE Delft MSc students in Water Management and Governance visited the Watersnood Museum and the Delta Works, with in between a lunch walk on the Vrouwenpolder beach. The purpose of the trip was to understand and experience the construction, execution, and management of the system of infrastructures that protect that part of the Netherlands from the sea and from floods. Having been for a year in the Netherlands during the unusual and locked-down Covid19 times, for many students this was the first encounter with one of the iconic infrastructures that made the Dutch water management knowledge popular and traveling across the world.

Outside the Watersnood museum

Watersnood museum tells the history of floods in the Netherlands, and in particular the 1953 North Sea floods that inundated the south-western part of the country, killing 1,835 people and forcing the evacuation of 70.000 more. The museum itself is located on a dyke and hosted in four caissons that were used in 1953 to complete the dyke. The self-guided tour in the Museum was somewhat filled with mixed feelings and emotions. Whilst some appreciated and acknowledge ‘The Dutch’ for their ability of preserving history for this long, other reflected on how destructive water can be, and on the need to stay always ahead of it to minimize the impacts of floods.

Our first stop at the Watersnoodmuseum had reminded me so much of the story of loss and survival from the Supertyphoon Hayain that hits my province in the Philippines last 2013.  I was so amazed at how artifacts from the 1953 flood were perceived and organized, providing a factual story for the present and future generations to reflect and learn on – an important thing that we failed to do in the Philippine” Merry Jean Caparas

The Watersnood Museum proved to be historically rich as far as the flood that befallen the Netherlands in 1953 is concerned. Every picture, video, book, game, all pointed to what best can be done to manage water in a way that history of destruction does not repeat itself. Emphasis was put on the inclusion of all stakeholders when it comes to water management issues.

Museums have not been built just to remember the past but to take into account what may happen again and be more prepared” Carmen Guadalupe Mallqui Caballero

The Watersnood Museum proved to be historically rich as far as the flood that befallen the Netherlands in 1953 is concerned. Every picture, video, book, game, all pointed to what best can be done to manage water in a way that history of destruction does not repeat itself. Emphasis was put on the inclusion of all stakeholders when it comes to water management issues.

At the Rijkswaterstaat

The Museum tour was followed by a presentation by Dr. Leo Adriaanse, Senior Advisor to the Rijkswaterstaat/ Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management on ‘History and Challenges of Southwest Delta of the Netherlands: Water Management = Guided Ecosystem’ followed by a discussion. For me, it was the notion of “water versus sediment perspective”, where Leo explained how the issue of water and water management can be looked at using these two. The importance of balancing flood protection infrastructures and the accumulation of sediments was key, before and after the 1953 floods, and especially now.

I learnt that the 1953 flooding disaster offered an opportunity for development. The way the Dutch have managed to develop water infrastructure since then is focused on risk reduction, safety, and the environment” Joseph Joe Shupiko

It is also interesting to note that in the Netherlands high-level technologies and models for water management and flood prevention were not in place before the 1953 floods – and even some years later – as the country was still developing economically. “Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance” were the final words uttered by Leo, as he emphasized the need to keep maintaining the infrastructure to attain the benefits of its protection and safety until 2050, whilst research is already underway on how to tackle the challenge next.

What stood out most for me is the political will towards putting up the necessary infrastructure to prevent or reduce the impacts of looming disasters as well as innovation beyond the infrastructure e.g. making museums or creating money-making ventures as people tour the facilities (infrastructure tourism)” Solomon Mwampikita.

The journey ended with a visit to the Oosterscheldekering, the largest storm surge barriers of the Deltaworks. Walking inside the barrier late in the afternoon, it was impressive to see and to hear the strength of the tide: the stream of saltwater flowing beneath the storm into the delta, as the barrier only closes when there is the risk of flooding. That resounding flow recalled us that, even if the construction of the Delta Works has saved The Netherlands from floods, there is more to it. especially for the future, where not only maintenance will be required all the way. As Leo put it  “once you decide on disturbing the natural ecosystem, be prepared for the consequences, as this will call for the either the restoration of the natural ecosystem and/or keeping on disturbing and manipulating it for life”.


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