The Delta Act: reinventing the Dutch approach to coastal management

Great Policy Successes This case study corresponds to a chapter by Arwin van Buuren, entitled "The Dutch Delta approach: The successful reinvention of a policy success", in the book Great Policy Successes, co-edited by Mallory Compton and Paul 't Hart. The book brings together fifteen cases of highly successful governance from around the world. For further information on this line of research, see: https://successfulpublicgovernance.com.

The Netherlands is situated on four river deltas, and much of the country’s land is located below sea level, making it highly susceptible to flooding. In recent years, average sea levels have been rising around the globe, and they are predicted to do so at an even faster rate in the present century. Keen to limit the impact of potential disasters, the Dutch government decided to assess what strategies were needed to manage climate change and rising sea levels. The Dutch cabinet appointed the Delta Committee to evaluate whether the Netherlands would cope in the most extreme projected climate scenarios. In 2008, the committee released a report outlining its findings and recommendations. Based on the committee’s report, the cabinet decided to create the Delta Programme to manage flood risk, freshwater supply, and the long-term impact of rising sea levels. 

The first Delta Programme, for 2011, was presented to the Dutch parliament in September 2010, and an annual Delta Programme report has been presented to parliament every year since. To ensure commitment to the programme’s ongoing work, the Delta Act was passed into law in 2012, enshrining the programme in the Dutch constitution. The Delta Act also sets out the role of the Delta commissioner, who is in charge of the programme, and the Delta Fund, which is its financial body. The programme’s objectives are set for the long term, making it difficult at this early stage to assess to what extent it has achieved its goals. However, the initial measures taken and infrastructure works under way seem to comprise the necessary steps for meeting the long-term objectives.

The challenge

The Netherlands has a long history of managing the relationship between sea, coast and land. Due to its geography, the country is particularly prone to the dangers of flooding and rising sea levels: it is situated amidst several river deltas and floodplains, with a total coastline of more than 400 kilometres. 

The country is also densely populated, and almost one-third of the population lives below sea level. As with overall trends in Europe, population density in the Netherlands has increased since the 1960s. However, Dutch population density is significantly higher than the EU average, as is its rate of population growth. For instance, there were 373 people per km² in the Netherlands in 1967, which grew to 509 per km² in 2017, an increase of 36 percent. The EU average for the same years saw a 17 percent increase from 103 people per km² to 121 per km².[1] These factors leave the Netherlands at great risk of future flooding, as sea levels are predicted to continue to rise throughout the century.[2]

Such challenges are nothing new for the Netherlands. Historically it has always had to deal with the difficulties posed by its geographical position on low-lying land near the coast. Its previous strategies have engaged with the problem through the use of protective structures such as dykes and reclaimed land. However, these measures have not always been sufficient to avert disaster. In 1953, as the result of an extreme storm surge, 1,835 people were killed and 165,000 hectares of land were flooded.[2] In response to the tragedy, the first Delta Committee was created to examine “which hydraulic engineering works should be undertaken in relation to those areas ravaged by the storm surge, (and) also to consider whether closure of the sea inlets should form one of these works”.[3] The first Delta Act was passed in 1958, and work was begun to shorten the coastline in order to prevent storm surge disasters of a similar scale in the future.

The 1958 Delta Act was an important step in recognising what needed to be done to protect the Netherlands. However, by the early 2000s, much of the infrastructure was in need of modernisation and repair. For instance, in 2008, a quarter of flood defences were not up to standard and the condition of almost a third of defences was unknown.[3] It was time, therefore, to modernise not only the infrastructure itself but also the approach taken. 

Although the Netherlands has extensive experience of dealing with the potential impact of nature on society and the economy, the future poses an altogether more difficult challenge. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fourth assessment report in 2007, which detailed its findings on the effects of climate change and the predicted outcomes. The report underlined the fact that vulnerable, low-lying coastal regions are at risk of rising sea levels, which may continue to rise for centuries, regardless of any potential stabilisation in average global temperatures.[4]

Using their existing expertise, and taking the initiative to adapt to the changing climate and its impact, the Netherlands was primed to launch an innovative approach to protecting itself in the long-term.

The initiative

In 2007, the Dutch government tasked the second Delta Committee with researching the potential effects of climate change on the Netherlands and the possible approaches to managing the situation. The committee was established in September 2007 and was given until April 2008 to submit its findings, “not because a disaster has occurred, but rather to avoid it”. The government wanted the committee “to present an integrated vision for the Netherlands for centuries to come” to enable it to develop its climate change strategy effectively.[3]

The committee’s recommendations informed the government’s decision to create the Delta Programme, which forms the government’s strategy for managing flood risk, freshwater supply, and the impact of climate change. To enable the Delta Programme to operate successfully and with ongoing support into the future, it was incorporated into legislation in the Delta Act. 

The Act came into effect on 1 January 2012 and serves as the legal basis for the Delta Programme to carry out its objectives and responsibilities. The Delta Act also outlines the role of the Delta commissioner, who manages the programme, and the Delta Fund, which finances it. Overall responsibility lies with the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.[5]

The main objective of the Delta Programme is to “provide strategies for protecting the Netherlands against flooding and [to ensure] sufficient freshwater supplies”.[5] The programme operates at both a national and regional level and is updated annually as required by the Act. The programme comprises nine sub-programmes: the national sub-programmes are concerned with safety, freshwater, new urban development, and restructuring; the regional sub-programmes focus on “the coast, Wadden region, rivers, IJsselmeer region, Rijnmond and Drechtsteden, and Southwest Delta”.[5] 

To oversee the programme’s implementation and management, the Act introduced the role of Delta commissioner, who ensures that:

  • All the component parts of the Delta Programme are properly coordinated
  • All the plans are drawn up on time
  • All the authorities are involved in the planning stage
  • All the authorities carry out what has been agreed.[5]

The commissioner is required to provide parliament with a detailed plan annually each September on the opening day of parliament, known as Prince’s Day or budget day, when the proposed financial budget for government spending is presented. This annual programme, as proposed by the commissioner, aims to provide ministers and public officials with the informed, up-to-date recommendations needed to protect the Netherlands in the face of possible flooding.[5] To pay for these measures, the Act established the Delta Fund, whose role is to finance the measures entailed within the programme.[6] 

The public impact

The Delta Programme has performed well since it began in 2011. Although the overall aims of the programme are long term, with the earliest goals set for 2050, many steps have already been taken to help the project reach its objectives. 

Feedback on the programme’s performance since 2011 has been generally positive. The conclusion of a 2011 evaluation found that “policy development regarding water issues in the programme has clearly acquired impetus and direction, the new flood risk management standards were implemented quickly and with public support, and policy development for the themes of freshwater supply and spatial adaptation has been boosted considerably through the Delta Programme”.[7]

Work has begun on several projects contained within the Delta Programme. The Room for the River programme, for instance, contained 34 measures including flood plain excavations, dyke relocations, and depoldering. The final evaluation of this programme showed it was completed under its allocated time and budget. It had led to improved economic and ecological strength, as well as improving conditions for residents.[8] For instance, work began in 2017 to install more pumps in the Afsluitdijk dam, which had failed to meet safety standards in 2006. This allows for water to be pumped into the North Sea should the IJsselmeer River rise.[8] Another project is being carried out to repair ten weak links found in coastal dykes and dunes by the Rijkswaterstaat (the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management), which is responsible for the design, construction and management of Dutch infrastructure.[8] One aim of the programme is to use fewer hard infrastructure interventions and to work with nature rather than trying to control it. 

Written by Ella Jordan

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Good

The Delta Committee noted in its 2008 findings that “the general public takes it for granted that government guarantees its protection against flooding, but the public does not see the matter as urgent, or of high political priority”.[3] Therefore, the input of individual citizens was not central to the planning stages of the programme, although citizen engagement was later mentioned in Delta Programme reports as an important element of the programme.

Owing to the Netherlands’ history of protecting the land through careful coastal engineering, or because it is not seen as an urgent matter, a general consensus has emerged among Dutch citizens that the government and Dutch engineers are well equipped to manage the problems caused by flooding.[10] The Dutch people seem to have confidence that their leaders are able to respond appropriately to the situation. “Recent inquiries have revealed that, indeed, most members of the public are not interested in discussing water issues because they are confident that things are being looked after properly, [and] the general population leaves it to the national government to decide whether more money is needed for flood defence.”[12] 

Stakeholder Engagement Good

In the initial planning stages of the Delta Programme, stakeholder involvement was primarily government-led and focused on public sector input. However, there was some involvement of “civil-society organisations, the business community and organisations with specialised water expertise” in the development of the programme.[5]  

The Delta Programme was the result of recommendations made by the second Delta Committee in 2008. In order to carry out its research, the committee consulted “experts, research institutes, national assessment agencies, government departments, [and] executive agencies” as part of its research.[3]

In order to draft an action plan for the new programme and the incoming commissioner, a team of kwartiermakers (quartermasters) was set up by Annemieke Nijhof, the director-general of water affairs at the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.[9] The quartermasters team consisted of civil servants from the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management and the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment.[10] It was thanks to Nijhof that the team approached their task with the aim of entering into a dialogue with the many parties involved” to discuss the “core values of the Delta Programme, and to explore, outline, and gradually substantiate these values together”.[9]

Political Commitment Strong

In the face of a changing climate and the likelihood of future flooding, the government has been committed to ensuring that the Netherlands would remain an attractive place for people to live, work and invest.[10] 

There was strong political buy-in for the Delta Act. Through the Act, the cabinet made a clear decision to continue investing in the improvement of the safety and in securing freshwater supplies for future generations.[11] The Delta Act was the responsibility of State Secretary Tineke Huizinga from the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management. She made the Dutch government’s support for action clear in 2010, noting that the Netherlands “cannot afford to slacken the attention we give to water safety. On the contrary, through the Delta Act the Cabinet of Ministers is consciously choosing to continue investing in the improvement of our safety and the securement of freshwater supplies for future generations.”[11] 

Secretary Huizinga also worked with the prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, to push forward the Delta Act. Balkenende was chairman of the ministerial steering committee which was responsible for implementing the Act. The steering committee had broad ministerial representation and included representatives from five ministries: the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment; the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality; the Ministry of the Interior; the Ministry of Economic Affairs; and the Ministry of Finance.[11] 

Policy

Clear Objectives Good

The programme has clear aims to protect the Netherlands against flooding, to ensure freshwater supplies, and to climate-proof the country’s spatial planning. Due to the long-term nature of the programme, its objectives are intentionally general so that they can be adapted and updated as the programme’s requirements become clearer over time. The Delta Committee has proposed three alternative timeframes to achieve the programme’s goals: “concrete measures out to 2050; a clear vision out to 2100; opinions on the very long term, beyond 2100”.[3]

Article 4.9, section 2 of the Delta Act details the programme’s objectives as:

  1. “Measures and provisions of national importance for the prevention and, if necessary, mitigation of floods and water shortage;
  2. “Measures and provisions for the protection or improvement of the chemical and ecological quality of water systems, in as far as these are part of the aforementioned challenges.”[13]

Evidence Good

The Netherlands is experienced in making infrastructure interventions to protect coastal lands. However, the Delta Programme changed the Dutch approach to flood risk from previous policies put in place by the first Delta Committee in the 1950s. The second Delta Committee based its recommendations on scientific evidence from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and the IPCC. Unexpected weather events and their potentially disastrous consequences, such as Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005, made the need for pre-emptive action clear. Consequently, the Delta Programme is the first of its kind to operate purposely on a multi-century timescale to prepare for and avert flooding disasters.

As early as the thirteenth century, the Dutch were constructing dykes to protect the coast, and by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, technology had advanced to enable the use of windmills and pumps.[2] The first Delta Committee in the 1950s based its recommendations for flood protection on the probability of flooding and the cost of resulting damage. However, the second Delta Committee was committed to including other non-financial elements in their cost-benefit analysis, such as casualties, “landscape, nature and cultural-historical values, societal disruption and damaged reputation”.[3] 

International experiences with natural disasters in the years leading to the Delta Act provided important lessons for the Netherlands. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and caused huge levels of damage for which the city was unprepared. Communities were devastated by the impact of the storm, which resulted in over 1,800 deaths, caused the evacuation of thousands of city residents, and left millions without power.[14] A key lesson was that damage predictions do not always align with actual events. Before Katrina hit, predicted potential damage was estimated at USD16.8 billion, while the true cost of the hurricane was USD27 billion.[15] This lesson provided a key warning for low-lying coastal regions like those of the Netherlands.

In 2006, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute conducted research to assess the impact of rising sea levels on the Netherlands. The second Delta Committee used this research to evaluate whether the Netherlands would remain habitable in the worst-case scenario. “One aim of this additional research was to find out whether, assuming the most extreme scenario, the Netherlands would remain inhabitable in the future, i.e. from 2100 onwards. The answer to that question was, yes, it would, but only on condition that we start preparing for the future in time.”[16] The committee also sought the expertise of those with experience in flood protection and water management, as well as experts involved with the IPCC. Their input provided valuable possible scenarios that the Netherlands could face.[3]

Feasibility Strong

The Delta Programme is feasible, as it has received the appropriate financial and legal backing. It is made financially possible by the Delta Fund, while the Delta commissioner, currently Peter Glas, and his team ensure the programme runs smoothly. The EU Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC), which requires countries with shared bodies of water to take joint responsibility for ensuring water quality, provided policy guidance for water standards across the EU, in line with Dutch objectives. The directive enhances the programme’s feasibility, because neighbouring countries who share waterways with the Netherlands are legally obliged to mirror and support Dutch efforts to ensure water quality.[17]

The Delta Fund finances all the Delta Programme’s measures and research, and is under the control of the minister for infrastructure and water management.[5] The Delta Fund relies on tax revenues collected nationally in the Netherlands. Until 2050, the estimated cost of the programme is EUR1.2 to EUR1.6 billion annually, of which EUR1 billion is designated for flood prevention and freshwater supply.[3] This amount is divided into EUR600 million for investment and EUR400 million for “management, maintenance and organisational expenditure”.[5] Between 2050 and 2100, the predicted costs are between EUR900 million and EUR1.5 billion per year.[3]

In addition to the financial provisions made in the Delta Act, the Act makes the role of the Delta commissioner very clear. The commissioner is appointed by royal decree with the support of government ministers and serves for a seven-year term with one opportunity for re-election. The commissioner must not be otherwise employed in either the public or private sector, doing any kind of work related to water management or the environment.[13] As of 2018, there were 14 members of staff working with the Delta commissioner.[18] 

Action

Management Strong

The Delta Programme has a clearly-defined structure, which determines the various ministerial responsibilities and whose duty it is to carry them out. The programme is run by the Delta commissioner and overseen by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management. 

The coordinator between the government and the Delta Programme is the minister for transport, public works and water management. Holding co-responsibility for the overall programme and sub-programmes are the minister for agriculture, nature and food quality, and the minister for housing, spatial planning and the environment. Local sub-programmes are the responsibility of provinces, local authorities and water boards, the last of these being the regional governmental organisations charged with managing the water system.[16]

To facilitate communication between the relevant actors, there are two committees to bring together key figures from the government, regional and local authorities, and water boards. These committees enable administrative decision-making to take place. The first is the Delta Programme Steering Committee, which agrees on the content of the programme and is chaired by the Delta commissioner. The second is the National Water Consultation Committee, which brings together the Delta commissioner, the minister for housing, spatial planning and the environment, and the minister for agriculture, nature and food quality.[16] 

Measurement Strong

One of the strengths of the Delta Programme is its annual review system, which allows for regular assessments and, if necessary, changes to its approach. This is deliberate, so that the programme is constantly responsive to new developments and is run cost-effectively.[19] Measurement is done through “monitoring, analysing, acting”: the annual report includes an evaluation of how the programme’s measures have been implemented. As the programme is reviewed each year, this allows for flexibility in making any necessary adjustments. In addition to the annual reviews of the programme, there is a six-year cycle during which a closer look is taken at progress to see if it is heading in the right direction and whether additional adjustments need to be made.[19] 

Alignment Strong

There was strong alignment between relevant actors in the Delta Programme. In 2016, an independent evaluation led by a governmental group of civil servants external to the Delta Commissioner’s office found that cooperation between the government, local authorities and water boards was “very good, for the most part in line with the high expectations and ambitions of the legislator”.[7] 

Similarly, the Delta commissioner noted that the various bodies involved – the Dutch water authorities, the Association of Provincial Authorities, the Association of Dutch Municipalities, and the government – have made the cooperation work.[7] The commissioner was engaged in taking the necessary steps to find a balance between “staying on course and being flexible” and taking on board the recommendations made by the government evaluators to achieve the programme’s aims.[7]