If the dikes break: we can prepare

7 December 2016

Are you also watching the disturbing television series: If the dikes break? Even though in real life pieces of land would remain dry, it can happen that a large part of the Randstad will be underwater. Wouter Botzen professor of Economics of Climate Change and Natural Disasters at IVM, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, explores how we can deal with this risk. 'There should be more attention to harm reduction.' said Wouter Botzen in an interview for the VU Magazine.

You watch the series too? 'Yes, I follow the series as well. Very important that this story presents the possible consequences of flooding in the Netherlands. It is a risk that runs for a large part of the Netherlands. Even if the water and dikes are heavily imbeeded into the Dutch landscape, we know from research that many people are not aware of the risk of flooding. I see that the series gets people thinking and realising that they could also be affected themselves and how would they react. And of course it is an exciting drama to follow.'

Is the series realistic, is the Randstad indeed a bowl whcih completely fills up if things go wrong? 'The series sketches a worst case scenario of a very severe storm and flooding. As coastal defense in the Randstad would fail during a heavy storm and that would trigger that a large part of the Randstad is flooded with billions in damage and many casualties. However, dry lands remains as well. The probability of the worst-case scenario is fortunately small due to the Delta Works and good dike infrastructure. If the Netherlands is confronted with a flood, it is likely that the disaster will be smaller than in the series. But even with a smaller flood the damage for the large rivers could run into billions of euros.'

'There is always a chance that something goes wrong'

Is the government on the right track, for example an additionsl meter of sand for new construction projects? And what about the long-term policy? 'The weak links in the coastal defenses which fail in the series, are now addressed by the government and strengthened. Protection from flooding has also been enhanced by the program Room for the River. These measures reduce the risk of flooding in the Netherlands, but do not provide complete security: there is always a chance that things go wrong. Climate change also provides new challenges because of the rising sea levels and higher peak flows in rivers.

The government takes account of climate change in the planning of dam infrastructure. Nevertheless, we should invest more in the future to keep control of the flood. For example, little attention to harm reduction measures. A good arrangement fails to set people compensation after a flood, as it is discussed in the series.'

AWS_Flood alert - iStock

'There is no proper arrangement that sets the damage losses for the people after a flood'

In 2013, you said that insurers were busy organizing a joint insurance pool for all contents and building insurance policies. In addition, they ensure damage to a ceiling and what is above would come from the government. What about now? 'Those insurance structures for floods were indeed developed by Dutch insurers that are members of the Association of Insurers. The proposal was submitted to the Authority for Consumer & Market (ACM) in 2013, which concluded that the construction is against competition law, because of the mandatory coverage. This means that this particular form of flood insurance is not implemented and Dutch people remain dependent on uncertain government compensation after a flood disaster.

The university is investigating a continuous insurance structure for flood damage in the Netherlands. I have colleagues which studied how a distribution of risk between the government, private insurers and individuals can lead to an affordable and comprehensive flood coverage. With this article we won a few weeks ago the outstanding paper award of the scientific Journal of Flood Risk Management. If renewed interest arises in the introduction of a broad flood insurance in the Netherlands, there is good base of knowledge to build such a system.'

'A broad flood insurance in the Netherlands might exist, we have the knowledge'

Your idea is that individuals can be stimulated with smart policies to get a discount if they take mitigating measures. I have not heard this yet from my insurer. 'The flood is excluded in almost all current tenancy and household insurance in the Netherlands, insurers offer no resuction permium for flood-resistant building or policy measures which might prevent a relatively large flood. It is the example of the raising of new constructions where the electrical installation or boiler are installed above expected water levels and no wooden floor on the ground floor. If there is a flood insurance policy, then I think that indeed could contribute to such smart policies to limit the claims.

Interestingly, insurers have been confronted in recent years with high damage by hail and extreme rainfall: they are often covered. With climate change these risks increase. I notice that it has penetrated awareness in the insurance industry and that there is debate about how insurance can help mitigate these losses. For example by encouraging people to better maintain their roofs and gutters. That of course is anyway a good idea to do even if your insurer does not asks for.'

Your research focuses not only on the Netherlands, right? 'No, this week I completed a study about which investments yield good economic returns for Italian businesses in flood prone areas to reduce damage to their company during a flood. The next four years I work with two PhD students for a major project on which EU reforms to better ensure natural disaster risks and mitigate the risks of climate change. Also in Mexico we investigate how poor communities can be made more resilient to floods that occur there almost every year. We want two things: help advise on scientific knowledge and policy makers. Given the global rise in natural disasters, still a lot of work needs to be done.'

Source: Rianne Lindhout, VU Magazine

Published by  IBED Water