How will the low-lying Netherlands protect against itself against sea-level rise - and what can New Zealand learn as it prepares for a potentially extreme future under climate change? Science reporter Jamie Morton asked Adrienne van der Sar, the visiting deputy director of Dutch Delta Programme Commissioner, which is tasked with protecting the country against high water and securing freshwater supplies.

The Netherlands has put in place impressive mitigation efforts - and that's perhaps not surprising given its ingenuity and history in this area. Can the Netherlands' efforts be partly explained by a greater awareness, appreciation and culture of preparedness and pragmatism around the threat of climate change? And is this perhaps lacking elsewhere?

The Netherlands has been managing its waters for centuries and that has resulted in a quite well organised system, also financially and institutionally.

Due to the fact that the government there has taken adequate measures over the last decade, there is great trust in it to keep the Netherlands flood proof.


But as a result of that, Dutch citizens nowadays are not always very aware of the risks of water.

So the Dutch government is also currently working on increasing awareness on flood and fresh water problems in the future.

Living in a flood-prone country - about 60 per cent of the Netherlands is prone to flooding - means that we have to continuously keep on working on flood-risk management.

In The Netherlands, we have made the decision to prevent future disasters instead of responding to them as we used to do.

That's why we have set up the Delta Programme in 2010.

During my visit to New Zealand, I learned that in areas where floods recently occurred, the awareness of the challenges related to climate change is increasing

The work of the Climate Change Adaptation Technical Working Group also contributes to this awareness.

I am curious about the next steps New Zealand is going to take on climate adaptation.

Despite our different geographies - although two-thirds of Kiwis live in potentially exposed areas to storm surge, flooding and sea-level rise - what lessons might the Netherlands be able to teach New Zealand and why?

Indeed, both countries are different and require different approaches.

On the other hand, there are certain lessons that we have learned that might provide interesting insights for New Zealand.


In my opinion, it starts with developing an adaptive or step-by-step strategy with a long-time horizon.

Climate change goes slowly, so it gives time to make decisions and think of the long-term challenges ahead.

Most countries take action after a disaster and that is too late and expensive.

Better to invest ahead and avoiding disasters happening.

Amsterdam canal. A Dutch expert says there's plenty the Netherlands can teach New Zealand about preparing for high sea levels. Photo / File
Amsterdam canal. A Dutch expert says there's plenty the Netherlands can teach New Zealand about preparing for high sea levels. Photo / File

That is the aim of our national Delta Programme.

This requires financial commitment every year.


In the Netherlands, these investments are enforced by law - the Delta Act - to ensure commitment from every Cabinet in the next decade.

I was glad to see that the so-called dynamic adaptive pathway planning has already been taken on board in the recent guidelines of the Ministry for Environment for coastal hazards and climate change.

I would suggest to prioritise this approach to the areas with highest number of inhabitants and where economic productivity is high to ensure the least economical damage due to floods, and also due to droughts.

Another lesson is the "multi-layer approach".

The first layer comprises preventing flood events - in the Netherlands, this involves mostly strengthening and elevating dykes.

The second layer focusses on limiting the damage in case of a disaster, such as ensuring that roads remain functional, ICT facilities keep working and hospitals are accessible.

The third layer of the approach focuses on evacuation plans in case disaster strikes.


Anywhere in the world, also in the Netherlands, extreme storms can happen.

It is not likely to happen, but plans should be prepared how to evacuate people.

In the Netherlands we focus on the first layer.

I can imagine that the focus may vary throughout New Zealand, depending on the number of people and assets at stake and which of the three layers get priority.

Do you see a need for nations to invest in more resilient infrastructure today despite the often frightening costs involved, given what the downstream costs would be otherwise?

Yes, it is certainly required to take upstream measures to ensure flood protection in the downstream areas.


Investments are necessary.

Still, it is much cheaper than the costs after a disaster has hit and repair works need to be initiated on top of protection measures.

Infrastructure is not always a good solution, for example, a successful approach in the Netherlands is the "Room for the River" projects.

These projects allow controlled floods in rural areas - or living with water instead of fighting against water.

Solutions are also in the field of building with nature.

It offers robust and ecological attractive solutions.


Another advantage is that soft ecological solutions create more adaptive pathways in case climate change suddenly speeds up.

Last, but not least, cooperation between all parties involved is crucial for an effective approach.

It requires a transparent and predictable process.

Finally, why is it so important for low-lying countries like the Netherlands - and others, like Bangladesh - for the rest of the world to decarbonise as soon as possible?

The low-lying countries are developing adaptive strategies to cope with the increasing water levels in rivers and oceans.

Adaption approaches are, in fact, end-of–pipe solutions to protect us against floods and ensure sufficient fresh water in dry season.

By decarbonising, we find solutions in limiting the effects of change climate.

We have to work both on mitigation and adaptation.


Only investing in adaptation will, in the long run, be extremely expensive.

We must fight the causes of climate change and meanwhile take action to prevent floods as much as possible.