The Netherlands is situated along the North Sea as well as in the delta of the rivers Ems, Meuse, Rhine and Scheldt. About 60% of the country’s surface is prone to flooding, from the North Sea and rivers and lakes. 26% of the Netherlands is below mean sea level. The IPCC’s fifth assessment report predicts a sea-level rise of 1 metre by 2100, but this rise could potentially be much larger depending on the pace of ice mass-loss in Antarctica and Greenland (Haasnoot et al. 2020).
In 1953 a storm surge and insufficiently maintained flood defence structures caused a major flood in which around 1800 people lost their lives. As a reaction, the first Delta Commission and the Delta Works – a system of dams, sluices and storm surge barriers – were established (van Alphen 2016; Haasnoot et al. 2020). In 1995 the Flood Protection Act (which turned into the Water Act in 2009) created legally binding flood protection standards, expressing the frequency with which the flood level can be exceeded, such as once in 10.000 years for the coast in the centre of the country. In addition, flood defence structures have to be assessed every six years. Water boards, consisting of democratically-elected members responsible for flood protection and water management, take measures to improve the defences when necessary.
In 2007, a second Delta Commission was created to respond to new challenges in water management, such as climate change. It resulted in a Delta Programme (since 2010) headed by a Delta Commissioner (a high-level independent government official, located above all parties as a central coordinator), financed by a dedicated Fund, and legally backed by a Delta Act. As such, the Programme is able to focus on national, long-term strategic thinking (Bloemen et al. 2019: 66), allowing national, regional and local authorities to ‘jointly prepare key decisions, develop strategies and implement measures, in close cooperation with the public, private parties, stakeholders and knowledge institutions’ (van Alphen 2016: 311). It also includes eight regional strategies/sub-programmes, with one focusing on the coast. In 2017, Delta Plans with actual measures on Risk Management, Freshwater Supply and Spatial Adaptation were added.
Dutch coastal management has been characterised by a focus on flood defence and the dominance of public actors in the management of the water system (Hegger et al. 2020: 8). New governance arrangements such as a risk-based approach have to some extent been introduced alongside the flood defence focus, but this does not seem to reduce the stability of the flood defence approach (Kaufmann et al. 2016).