The View from Below Sea Level
Much of the Netherlands is below sea level. Flood survival is a great concern. We have learned that, to survive, we need a governance system with balance. It can be neither too centralized nor too decentralized; it must be led by the government, but it must be run in partnership with the private and civil sectors.
We learned much of this in 1953, in the aftermath of the worst flooding in modern Dutch history. At that time, there were more than 2,500 water authorities in the Netherlands. Created by local landlords, farmers, and churches, these village water boards dated back to the Middle Ages, and were probably the first elected democracies in Europe. Some were more than 1,000 years old. They had built the earliest Dutch windmills, which were used to pump water out of the lowlands; they had also built drainage ditches, canals, and the earliest Dutch dikes for stopping floods.
Then, during a storm that reached our shores on January 31, 1953, and lasted for several days, the sea broke through 89 dikes. More than 1,830 people died, in many cases after being trapped by water inside their houses; 72,000 people were evacuated. We realized that year that to change our water technologies, we would have to change our water management approach. So we consolidated into 26 local “water authorities.” They are completely independent of other government agencies: They have their own taxes (so that their funding cannot be diverted or politicized) and are responsible only for water, sewage treatment, and flood protection. All the water authorities remain democracies, with officials elected by residents in their jurisdiction.
There is a national authority as well, the Rijkswaterstaat, which prescribes overall standards — how high and strong levees must be, how pure water must be to earn a designation of “purified,” and so on. This authority dates back to Napoleon’s invasion in the 1790s. But centralized control by itself cannot guarantee preparedness for floods and other natural disasters, because each region is different. Each area has its own soil types, mix of rural and urban neighborhoods, and favored approaches. If we had a centralized system, the national authority would have to manage on-the-ground protection in faraway localities, and that would be much too impractical.
We also include nongovernmental organizations in our preparedness infrastructure. These include not-for-profit institutes that conduct research on water safety and flood prevention, environmental groups, farmers’ unions, contractors who build and maintain dikes and levees, and companies that pay fees to send their waste through the systems.
All of these groups typically have seats on the water boards. The boards, in short, are not just governing authorities — they are conveners of conversation and mutual planning. The more candid, pragmatic, and inclusive the planning conversations, the more effective our protection against the incursion of sea or river.
Sybe Schaap ([email protected]) is the chairman of the Groot Salland regional water association, the president of the Dutch Association of Water Authorities, and a newly elected member of the National Senate of the Netherlands.
Reprint No. 07309
Douglas Himberger ([email protected]) is a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton based in McLean, Va., specializing in information analysis related to survivability and vulnerability. He is the chairman-elect of the board of directors of Safe America, a not-for-profit foundation concentrating on community and business safety and security.
David Sulek ([email protected]) is a principal with Booz Allen in Herndon, Va. He leads a team of policy analysts focused on homeland security, critical infrastructure protection, information sharing, public–private partnership issues, and national preparedness.
Stephen Krill Jr. ([email protected]) is a senior associate with Booz Allen in McLean, Va., where he leads projects related to risk, security, and emergency management. He is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety, lecturing on terrorism preparedness.