Tuesday 11 February 2014

Why does Britain flood more readily than the Netherlands ?

In the news at the moment it seems a surprisingly large part of the UK is flooded. I've read of flooding around the Thames stretching all the way to Oxford, in Lincolnshire, the East Anglian Fens, in Cambridge near where we used to live and most of all in the Somerset levels.

My family name, Hembrow, originates in Somerset. I lived there myself for many years of my life. It makes me especially sad to see that the Somerset levels have been flooded for six weeks already and that this has caused so much stress to so many people living in that area.

Before we moved from Cambridge to Assen, a number of people warned us not to on the grounds that we'd be flooded "because the Netherlands is below sea-level". This wan't a concern to us at all. We had done our homework. What's more, because we were moving to Assen we were actually moving to somewhere which was at about the same altitude above sea level as Cambridge.

Have we had floods in the Netherlands ?
Here in the Netherlands, we get much the same weather as Britain. As such, we have had similar heavy rain and windy conditions in the last few weeks. However while we have seen reports of flooding somewhere in the UK every year since we left, there's been no flooding here at all in the last six years (i.e. the whole time we've lived in the Netherlands).

While we lived comfortably above sea-level, the people who warned us about being "below sea-level" were right in one respect. A large part of the population of the Netherlands really does live on land which is below sea-level.

The Dutch polders are a far larger area of reclaimed land than anything that exists in the UK. Much of it is significantly below sea level. The world's largest artificial island is Flevoland, also the newest province of the Netherlands. Flevoland is huge. It's considerably larger than Berkshire or Bedfordshire,  nearly four times as large as the Isle of Wight. Almost this entire area is below sea level. If you fly into Lelystad airport then you land at an altitude of "-13 feet". People live in Flevoland, and indeed other low lying parts of the Netherlands, as much as 5 metres below sea level. With good water management, flooding is extremely rare.

Since we moved here seven years ago, our nearest bicycle
tunnel has had water in it twice after heavy rainfall. It's a
slight inconvenience which clears itself within minutes or
hours. This is not really flooding.
I should make it clear that there have been reports of flooding and the media here plays it up somewhat. However, all they've actually had to report upon was heavy rainfall causing a few cm of water to stay for a few minutes or a couple of hours in obviously difficult places such as underpasses, or occasionally especially vulnerable cellars. Such problems are resolved very quickly. For instance, in one example last year I returned home two hours after my wife to find that her feet had got slightly wet as she cycled through a "flooded" underpass. When I'd cycled along the same route there was not even a puddle. This and related incidents nearby made it into the local press as "flooding".

How to react to a crisis.
In 1595, a man called Cornelius Vermuyden was born in a small village in the South of the Netherlands. Cornelius Vermuyden grew up become a land reclamation engineer and when he moved to the UK, he took his expertise with him. Mr Vermuyden was involved in draining Lincolnshirethe Fens of East Anglia and the Levels of Somerset.

Britain has of course done more work on flood defences since the 17th century, but you won't be surprised to hear that it has been on a much smaller scale than in the Netherlands. Frankly, what the UK has done has not been nearly adequate. You can tell this because the UK still floods.

Britain's current problems are due to not being able to cope with rainfall. However, the biggest flood disaster of recent history was due to a high tide and storm at sea which caused the North Sea Flood of 1953. This led to extensive flooding which affected both the East of England and the South-West of the Netherlands. While there is little to gain immediately from finger pointing in the UK right now, I think it's instructive to look at how two different nations responded to a previous disaster and consider how the UK should now respond to the problems which it faces.

Infrastructure. Infrastructure. Infrastructure.
Just as with cycling, the difference between the UK and the Netherlands can be seen as a difference in Infrastructure. Both the Netherlands and the UK were affected by the devastating 1953 floods and both countries reacted. How well have these two countries protected themselves against similar future flooding events ?

Britain after 1953
In response to the 1953 floods, the UK shored up much of the existing sea wall and built two large flood defences. The first was the Hull Tidal Barrier. This structure, spanning 30 m, is claimed to have "saved 19000 homes" in December. This barrier has closed about 12 times a year since it opened in 1980.

The largest sea defence in the UK is the Thames Barrier. This took ten years to build and was officially opened in 1984 to protect London. The total cost was £534 million. The Thames Barrier divides the river into two 30 m wide and four 61 m wide navigable spans. It is designed to withstand a 1 in 1000 year storm but it will be less effective after 2030 due to sea level rise.  It was originally planned to be replaced in 2030 but the working life has since been extended to 2060-2070. The decision not to begin work to replace the barrier has been controversial. In 2005, a proposal was made for a much longer defence further down the river. In 2013, a former member of the Thames Barrier Project Management Team wrote an open letter calling for a new barrier to be looked into immediately. The Environment Agency responded by saying that it "does not plan to replace the Thames Barrier before 2070". Here is the Thames Barrier:

The Thames Barrier. View Larger Map

The Netherlands after 1953
One of the largest moving objects on earth is the Maeslantkering. This sea defence protects Rotterdam from flooding. It cost €450 million to build. It was not possible to build something like the Thames Barrier in this location because the ships which visit the Port of Rotterdam. The Port of Rotterdam is huge. It's the largest port in Europe and one of the largest in the world and it has to accommodate the world's largest ships. This do not fit through the small openings in the Thames Barrier and therefore the Maeslantkering was designed as two parts which could float together in time of storms but which would normally be opened 360 m. It's entirely computer controlled and automatic and this barrier was designed to withstand a 1 in 10000 year event. Here it is to the same scale as the Thames Barrier:

The Maeslantkering to the same scale as the Thames Barrier in the image above View Larger Map

While the Maeslantkering could be seen as being on a overall similar scale to the Thames Barrier, this is not nearly the whole story. This is just one small link in a chain.

In the aftermath of the 1953 floods, the Netherlands began something far more impressive than building barriers on this scale. The Maeslantkering is just one part of the last section of the Delta-Works, an extensive sea defence network which protects the whole of the South-West of the Netherlands. Work on the Delta-Works began almost immediately after the devastating 1953 floods and continued until they were declared finished in 1997. However, in reality, works continue now to ensure that the defences are proof against sea-level rise.

The Oosterscheldekering operates in a manner which is similar to that of the Hull or Thames Barriers. Like the Thames Barrier, this took ten years to build, but it's but it is on a far greater scale. While the Thames Barrier spans a 520 m wide part of the Thames, the Oosterscheldekering is about 15 times that long and is designed to last more than 200 years. At the centre of the barrier, an artificial island several kilometres long, Neeltje Jans, forms part of the structure. On the island you can find such things as a visitors centre with information about the entire Delta-Works and a water park with activities for children. The picture below shows the Oosterscheldekering with a superimposed picture of the Thames Barrier to the same scale:

Almost everything you see in this aerial photo is a flood defence, including those artificial islands. This is just a small part of what keeps the Netherlands from flooding. Compare with the Thames barrier to the same scale in the corner
And this is what you see if you drive or cycle over the Oosterscheldekering. Yes, of course as well as a road there is a safe cycle route, in this case combined with a service road. All through motor traffic travels on the right side of this picture, on lane in each direction on either side of the green line, so conditions are just fine for this family with children:

The Oosterscheldekering is an enormous piece of infrastructure. View Larger Map

From wikipedia. See license for this image
Even the Oosterscheldekering is actually only a part of the total Delta-Works:

To protect the North of the Netherlands there is another set of sea defences. The Zuiderzee Works. This again was built on an enormous scale, including the world's longest dyke. Also see the Lauwerzee works.

Why is the Netherlands dry ?
The Netherlands keeps both the countryside and the towns dry. Dutch people are not told by their politicians that there is a choice of town or country because it would be devastating for the country to lose either.

A new law was created which commits the government to protecting the country from floods. While the pictures above all relate to flooding from the sea, note that the law applies equally to flooding due to rivers. The Netherlands has suffered this type of flooding in the past, but remedial measures taken against those are far in advance of what I've seen in the UK.

The Netherlands doesn't flood because rather than making excuses as happens in the UK, the infrastructure has been built to protect this country.
On holiday last year, Judy and I cycled for nearly 100 km kilometres next to this dyke, which protects farmland and small villages from the sea. Flood defences here are on a huge scale, ringing the coastline and around all rivers. The Netherlands doesn't flood because the Dutch decided not to let it flood.
For many years we've been trying to encourage the UK to build infrastructure which is suitable to encourage the entire population to cycle. Again and again, cyclists are fobbed off with words which don't result in real change. Even aspirations for change remain extremely low. Britain makes a lot of noise, sends press releases around the world to try to pretend huge progress has been made, but this noise is completely out of proportion with what has been achieved.

I see almost exact parallels with flood defences. The Thames Barrier is not actually nearly enough even to protect London and it does nothing for people who don't live near the Thames. What's more, it's on a microscopic scale when compared with Dutch flood defences. However, Britain has been making a lot of noise again. Search for "Thames Barrier" on Google and you get 1.3 M hits. "Maeslantkering" -  just 66 K.

Britain: On the subjects both of cycling and of flood prevention, you need to stop pretending that marketing will fix the problems, stop shouting loudly about small "successes" and start watching how the Dutch build infrastructure !

200 m from our home, is this drainage ditch next to a
 cycle-path next to a canal with house-boats. This cycle
, like thousands of km of roads and cycle-paths across
the Netherlands, belongs to the water board. It doubles
as an access road for maintenance vehicles. The drainage
ditch is dredged four times every year.
The Netherlands has many thousands of kilometres of dyke and canal, much of which is used to some extent to fight against flooding and all of which is immaculately maintained. Water Boards are very important in the Netherlands. Everyones' safety depends on good water management. We vote for the water board in the local elections.

The drainage ditches here are dredged four times a year which helps to make sure they work properly. Dredging has become a major topic in Somerset because abandonment of maintenance has quite possible contributed to the flooding, however the problems with Britain go a lot further than this. It's a systematic failure to have built the required infrastructure over decades which has made that country so vulnerable, not just that the dredgers haven't been used recently. That this basic maintenance has not been done is a symptom, not the disease.

A few more links to Wikipedia may be of interest. Here's a list of all the sea-floods that have occurred in the  Netherlands. A general article about Flood Control in the Netherlands is very interesting. Note that because the Netherlands is the route to the sea for some of Europe's large rivers (e.g. the Rhine), this country has to deal with water which runs downhill from other countries, such as Germany. The Room for the River project is addressing conditions around some of these rivers in some cases allocating areas of controlled flood plain which will be allowed to flood. This has been misinterpreted by some British commentators as a wholesale retreat from flood defences when actually it's nothing of the sort. I also recommend that you read about river flooding and its prevention in the Netherlands.

We now also know that in 2012, the present British government cut the budget for flood defences for the very areas in Britain which are now flooded.

Two weeks later
The flooding continues in Somerset. My mother sent me a copy of the local paper which is dominated by the continuing flooding problem.

There are stories about fund raising for those who've lost their homes, estimates of how long until people will be able to return, how business are struggling to cope, how pumps brought in from a few km west of where we live in the Netherlands are now helping to move water a few km away from where my mother lives in Somerset.

The newspaper also includes a letter to the editor from my mother pointing out that my father used to talk about how the flood defences were not maintained adequately. Sadly, he passed away five years ago so it's some time since he made those comments. This is not a new problem, it's the result of decades of underinvestment in the infrastructure required to keep Somerset safe from flooding.

The reaction to this blog post
It has been surprise to me at all that many of the reactions to this blog post have been claims of exceptionalism such as that "Britain's coastline is longer". Of course it is true that Britain's coastline is longer. The UK is an island. However, that means there is more work to do, not less.

Such responses are used to deflect criticism rather than responding directly to the argument. What I wrote above is a call for Britain to start taking action rather than making excuses.

No two countries are the same. No two countries have the same challenges so no two countries have exactly the same solutions either. However, there's a big difference between doing things and not doing things.

June 2014: The same drainage ditch as shown two photos
above being dredged for the second time this year. It is
constant maintenance of infrastructure built to a high
standard which prevents the Netherlands from flooding.
Exceptionalism works in both directions. If it were the Dutch making excuses for flooding while Britain remained dry, Dutch people could point out ways in which the UK is different to the Netherlands and which make the task of staying dry so much easier for Britain. e.g. a far smaller proportion of Britain is at or below sea level than is true of the Netherlands so Britain has to protect a smaller proportion of itself from the sea. Also, all of Britain's rivers start and end in the same country so the flow of water is entirely under British control, while the Netherlands has to deal with water which has run from the Alps and picked up volume all the way through Germany when there are heavy storms, so it is German flooding that affects the Netherlands. But these are both hypothetical responses to a situation which does not exist. It is Britain which floods and the Netherlands which remains dry. Why ? That was the entire point of this blog post.

The point remains the same. The Dutch do engineering and solve problems while Britain makes excuses and is affected by problems which could be resolved. This was not always the case. As I've pointed out elsewhere, Britain made remarkably fast progress on things like the motorway network in the 1950s, which were then considered to be important enough to attract investment.

Dredging four times a year
When I first wrote this blog post I suggested that the drainage ditches around Assen were dredged twice a year. I had not checked and I didn't want to make an inaccurate claim. However, I've had to amend that in the face of yesterday's dredging - the third time this has happened so far this year. It's a three monthly event. Four times a year. Here's video of the machine at work on September 10th:

In September 2014 the same machine came back again to dredge the same ditch for the third time this year. Maintenance is remarkably regular and comprehensive, four times a year in this case. Not only dredging happens on a regular basis, but also all the other things that Britain puts off as well. This is why Britain floods but the Netherlands does not. It comes down to actually doing the work: Having a policy and following it consistently for decades.

In other news, the Netherlands has also just announced that there is to be €20 Billion invested in a new Deltaworks. This is to prevent the chance that the existing extensive sea dykes will prove inadequate. 1500 km of the existing 3700 km of dyke are to be upgraded at a cost of between €7M and €9M per kilometre.

Update Christmas 2015
Britain has "widespread flooding" once again. The map on the right shows the 190 flood warnings in force across the UK over the Christmas holiday. Those which are red involve risk to life.

Of course, this didn't come about with no warning at all. Some "defences" broke down for the fourth time in a month during these particular floods. Some homes were flooded for the third time in one month.

Even the language being used is a bit ludicrous. If a flood "defence" isn't adequate to stop the water, then it is not really a defence against flooding.

Britain is simply still not investing anything like enough in flood defences. Though it seems that there is now some consideration that a "rethink" might be required, the emphasis seems to be on such things as "solid floors, waterproof plaster, more electrics up the wall - so that people can get into their houses and businesses more quickly", which are not quite the same thing as preventing flooding from happening in the first place.

Meanwhile, here in the Netherlands - the country which many British people imagine is more vulnerable to flooding than their own - we've had no flooding at all.

Update June 2016
Sadly, the UK has just voted to leave the EU. This will have a devastating effect on the British economy and a devastating effect on the British people. Though this happened just four days ago, it has already had a terrible effect on my family and myself.

But what does brexit have to do with flooding, you might ask ? Unfortunately, the brexit was preceded by many years of the British press telling outright lies about the European Union. Not just a few false stories, but hundreds of them, which you can find listed here. Amongst them is a suggestion that the EU is somehow responsible for floods in the UK. This is of course utter nonsense. The EU actually provided help to flooded communities and funding for flood defences in the UK. But the UK is now leaving the EU, so in the future you can forget about that source of funding for flood defences.

Update February 2020
Every year since my last update there have been multiple flooding events in the UK. We've lived in the Netherlands for nearly 13 years now and there have been no floods here in that time. Last week both the UK and the Netherlands suffered from the effects of Storm Ciara. This weekend it's Storm Dennis. And what happened ? No flooding whatsoever in the Netherlands vs. the largest number of storm warnings ever seen in the UK (more than 700 in total):
This map shows just England. There was also flooding in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

People in the UK are losing their homes, their business, some even their lives. People in the Netherlands just have wind and rain to deal with. Why this difference ? Because the Netherlands prepares for storms by building infrastructure to cope with them while the UK does basically nothing at all.

And yes, the two countries do have differing geography. But they also have similar geography. In the UK there is regular coastal flooding, inland flooding, flooding next to rivers, flooding in hilly areas, flooding in flat areas, flooding in the countryside and in the towns and cities. In the Netherlands there has been no flooding in any of those places.

Update 15 July 2021
July 2021 flooding in Limburg (source)
Yesterday and overnight there has been a lot of rain over Germany, France, Belgium and here in the Netherlands. In our country this particularly fell in the southern province of Limburg.

This area of the Netherlands is hilly so there is run-off from the hills into valleys, but we also have the Maas, Rijn/Waal and Schelde (Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt) rivers flowing from Belgium, France and Germany bringing water from those places into the south of the country. This makes some areas prone to flooding from excess rainfall.

The last time that there was significant flooding due to these rivers was in 1993 and 1995. This provoked some major works to counter future flooding due to the rivers. Some of the flooding which has taken place this week is of areas which were specifically dedicated as extra "room for the river". e.g. farm land and campsites, but clearly the flooding this year is more extensive than has been the case for the last few years. Water flow in the Maas has broken the previous winter record from 1926 and nearly doubled the previous summer record.

Tragically, dozens of lives have been lost in Germany and Belgium. At the time of writing, there are no reported deaths here in the Netherlands.

There is no escaping the fact that global warming due to people burning fossil fuels has already made the weather more unpredictable and we can only expect more of these extreme weather events as a result. More and better sea and river defences will help. That is what has made the Netherlands relatively safe for flooding in the past. But to prevent there being ever more floods in the future we need to change our behaviour, patterns of consumption, so that we stop destroying our climate.