Outsourcing Adaptation to the Dutch

+ Kari Kohn

In a recent post for The Atlantic Cities, Sarah Goodyear explores an interesting development in countries’ efforts to adapt to climate change. Geographical necessity pushed the Dutch to take collective action, formulating a legal regime and engineering defense systems to protect residents from storm surge and flooding. To cope with threats from rising sea levels, countries are now outsourcing technological solutions and government services to the Dutch.

In the Netherlands, floods have been a part of life, and death, for at least 800 years. That uncomfortable reality led not just to a series of engineering advances, but also to a robust governmental institution – the water boards, which emerged in the 13th century as the nation’s first democratically elected bodies. “The water boards formed because farmers realized that living on mounds surrounded by water wasn’t a good way of making money,” says Morris. “Instead, they pooled their resources.”

The water boards still exist today – including that very first one, in Delft – and are responsible for every aspect of water management in a given community. They are also possessed of their own taxation authority, giving them concrete resources to deal with what everyone recognizes is a concrete problem. “Because the flood risk is so high,” says Morris, “it’s ingrained that the flood risk is real.”

Other countries, where the threat from storm surge has been geographically isolated or dispersed, the need for Dutch-style collective action has not been as strong. But as climate change brings raises the risk of storm surge for greater numbers of people, countries are looking to the Dutch.

Dutch experts have been invited to Thailand, where 2011 floods soaked 65 of the nation’s 77 provinces, overwhelmed large parts of Bangkok for weeks, and killed more than 800 people. Dutch consultants created flood simulation models, inspected failing dikes, and advised the government to implement an “integrated water plan,” rather than relying on “the usual ad hoc engineering approach.” They have done similar work in dozens of nations around the world, including Vietnam, Romania, Indonesia – and the United States. For the Dutch, water management is a growth industry.

The Dutch have been actively marketing themselves.  Here is their view of their capabilities.

Wind, water and wide open spaces have shaped the Netherlands and its history. To be able to safely live in the low-lying delta that is the Netherlands, the Dutch have had to become skilled water managers. Our national track record speaks for itself. Over the years we have reclaimed land, increased our freshwater resources, made drinking water safe, and made it possible to re-use our wastewater.

We like to share our knowledge and skills internationally. We believe that by putting our heads together, we can achieve more in confronting global water-related challenges.

…Today, our situation is actually very similar to that of many other countries. The difference is that as a result of our historic battle with water, we have achieved a mindset, an institutional setup, and a habit of involving government, business and research partners. Today, we are finding that as other countries pick up the gauntlet, they are turning to the Netherlands for guidance, inspiration and specific expertise that will allow them to solve their own problems.

As coastal cities continue to grow in the face of climate change, the Dutch appear well-placed to export government services and technologies in ways that improve urban resilience and save lives.

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