‘We go from just protecting against water to living with the water’

2024-02-23 10:27:00

Co Verdaas has been the face of the Delta Program for water management in the Netherlands since December. This is no longer just about safety, but also about drought, drinking water and weather extremes. ‘Nobody knows where we will be in 2100, but you can’t say: we’ll see.’

Onno HavermansFebruary 23, 202411:27

Co Verdaas goes well with lecturing. The part-time professor of area development at TU Delft was also a dike manager at the Rivierenland Water Board for five years. In December he started as the new Delta Commissioner, the face of the national Delta Program in which the government, provinces, municipalities and water boards protect the Netherlands against flooding and ensure there is enough fresh water.

Shortly after his appointment, the water from the Waal, the IJssel and the Markermeer overflowed the quays in some places. “If it had rained for two weeks longer, things would not have gone well. Not that dikes would break yet, but the perceived sense of safety decreased. We have to start thinking about compelling choices for the future.”

Is it right that it is always about safety?

“Safety will always and forever be number 1. If we do not keep it safe here, then you simply cannot organize a society. And no economics. A third of the Netherlands is below sea level, a third can flood if the rivers overflow their banks and 4 percent is located outside the dikes.

“Since 2018, drought has become a major cause for concern, raising the question of whether there will be enough fresh water in the future. Drinking water companies warn that they may not be able to supply water to the million homes that need to be built. And extreme weather creates heat in cities, with temperatures of 40 degrees or more. These are not disasters like those in 1953, but they still cause casualties.

“For centuries, the water sector has been able to provide everything that society needed. Now, in addition to draining water, we also have to retain water. If you expand the surface water or raise the groundwater level, you can no longer do other things. Then you are also talking about spatial planning and the business climate in the longer term.

“The Delta Program started in 2011 with a primary focus on safety, and also the idea that we must invest in time to do something about the steadily and gradually changing climate. In recent years, we have seen from the United Nations climate reports and the KNMI climate scenarios, and from the eighth month in a row in which global warming has exceeded 1.5 degrees, that it is becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable, with more extremes that occur more often. So what we have been doing for centuries, and getting better and better, is no longer enough.”

So we have to deal with the water differently. But how?

“Many smart scientists and professionals are calculating and measuring what the robust water system of the future should look like. And we check whether the Delta Program is still sufficient. When improving dikes and locks (our flood defenses) and draining water, we must also take climate change, the layout of the country and the economy into account. We will no longer be able to make it through smart improvements and refinements alone. A number of major waterworks investments need to be replaced: the Maeslantkering, for example, and the Delta Works have also been written off once. That doesn’t have to happen tomorrow, but it took seventy years before the Delta Works were completed. And no one knows where we will be in 2100.

“The most plausible scenario for sea level rise is now 1.2 meters in 2100, but if that turns out to be 5 meters or 80 centimeters… you cannot say: we will see that again. So we must make timely choices for the most robust and safest water and soil system. But always with a bandwidth of uncertainty. If you wait until you know for sure, you will be too late.”

Will you be able to complete that puzzle?

“These are fascinating times, a lot of things are coming together. But if it can be done anywhere, it is in this country. We have been doing it for centuries, we are still the safest delta in the world. In the Middle Ages, the rest of the world saw us as a sinful people, I learned from Professor Herman Pleij. We were the only nation that went against the will of God, read the elements, by continually reclaiming pieces and withdrawing them from the sea and rivers.

“But that has also shaped us culturally. Tourists always remember from their visit to the Netherlands that they stood on a dike and that the water on one side was higher than the houses on the other side where people live. That is apparently such a compelling image. And for us that is normal, it is self-evident that we live below sea level.”

Why is it only now being established that water and soil determine the layout of the country?

“For people with a background in spatial planning, like me, this is nothing new. Everyone involved in the design of the Netherlands now realizes that we must take the natural system as a starting point for our actions if we want to keep it attractive for future generations.

“It is a mental shift that you accept that what has gone well for centuries, with pumps and dikes, is no longer enough. There are different perspectives on how to do this, but I see no contradictions. You will always need a lot of technology, no matter how we guide the Netherlands into the next century. We are already a third below sea level and as the sea level continues to rise, that area will only increase. The other school wants to do as much as possible from the natural system itself, you can’t be against that, but that is never possible without technology. Both are necessary.”

Isn’t the discussion mainly about space?

“Climate change is also a spatial issue. Retaining water better in times of drought requires space. We also need that fresh water to prevent the threat of salinization if seawater enters through seepage and estuaries. Where can you still urbanize and where should water storage be located? We have not yet drawn all this out in a blueprint, but we still have time and a lot is still uncertain.

“The Netherlands is finished, was literally the atmosphere in 2005. That was the widely shared view, socially but also in politics. And that was less than twenty years ago! When I started as a professor 5.5 years ago, area development was a niche. If you said that you hoped that a new cabinet would pay attention to spatial planning again and that water and soil systems would form the basis for future development, you would get a strange look. And two years later the time had come. So it is not surprising that we take some time to work that out.”

How do you make that new plan?

“I see it as a challenge for myself and for the Delta Program to involve the entire society in where we are going. That is easier said than done, but if you know what you want and that all sensible people are working on it, it is a more pleasant story than the message of too little water and too high seas. We should not hide these facts, but translate them into a beckoning perspective: we will do this together. We’ve been doing that for centuries. Of course, it has to go a little faster, and the country is busier than ever and we have more wishes than ever.

“In my application letter I wrote: we must move from a tradition of protecting against water to the ambition to live with water. That is a change in mentality that we have to make together. During the Christmas period there were also stories of people who lived outside the dike and were very resigned to the fact that the water was high. Like: that happens once every few years, we are prepared and our house is equipped for it.”

You live outside the dike. With peace of mind?

“Since I live outside, my wife and I live much more consciously with nature. We closely monitor the weather and water forecast. It can’t really go wrong, but we can live on an island temporarily. That requires preparation and adjustment: put the boat or car inside the dike, and when the water has receded, clean up any rubbish that has washed up. But it also brings solidarity and makes you aware: this is part of it.

“And that is no longer just reserved for living in flood-prone areas. You can make the dikes as high as you want, but if it rains very hard, it will just get wet. We have not experienced those showers of 2021 above Limburg, the Ardennes and the Eifel for centuries. Now just be prepared for it.

“The glaciers are melting and the snow line is moving. We sit end of pipe; If there is no proper coordination, we may suddenly have to deal with too much water, or too little if a dam is placed in the river without consultation. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen in Europe. But there is no one way forward, and there are all kinds of far-reaching interests at play. It is not an option to continue on the old path.”

Who is Co Verdaas?

Co Verdaas (57) succeeded Peter Glas on December 1, 2023 deltacommissaris. He studied urban planning in Nijmegen, where he obtained his PhD for research into the functioning of the planning system in the Netherlands. He worked at the university in Wageningen, the municipality of Zwolle and a housing association. Between 2003 and 2006 he was member of the House of Representatives on behalf of the PvdA and from 2007 to 2012 deputy of the province of Gelderland. In that position, the Gelderland PVV faction accused him of incorrect declarations, which caused him to fail when he was appointed State Secretary for Agriculture at the end of 2012. After four weeks he resigned again because the PVV Gelderland wanted to force a criminal investigation. The Public Prosecution Service declared the complaint inadmissible and the court in Arnhem rejected the request at the end of 2013. In 2018 Verdaas part-time professor in Delft and in 2019 Dikegraaf of the Rivierenland Water Board.

Also read:

Higher dikes or more water collection? The question is what do we want the Netherlands to look like?

After strengthening dikes, adapting to the water also falls short of the consequences of climate change, says researcher Tom van der Voorn. ‘First look to the future and then choose your measures’he says.

‘Don’t wait for the next flood, look higher’

Can we still live in the Randstad or should we move to higher parts of the country? “It is not wise to continue building in the way we have always done,” says Delta Commissioner Peter Glas.

Is Limburg the wake-up call for the climate? Five responses

Due to the floods in Limburg, the Netherlands feels the hot breath of the climate crisis on its neck. What lessons can we learn from this sudden disaster? And more importantly: does anything happen to those lessons? Five responses.

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