Water works

The Dutch realized they couldn’t beat the floods. So they made room for them

David W. van Raalten, Arcadis, Amersfoort, the Netherlands

David W. van Raalten, Arcadis, Amersfoort, the Netherlands



The most ambitious Room for the River project is taking place in the city of Nijmegen

The most ambitious Room for the River project is taking place in the city of Nijmegen.


For centuries, the Netherlands built walls to keep the water out. With the €2.3 billion Room for the River program, the European country—where 26 percent of the land sits below sea level—is now letting the water in.

In 1993 and 1995, flooding of the Waal, Rhine and Meuse rivers resulted in the evacuation of 250,000 residents and devastated the Rhine delta region. Dutch engineers realized they needed to rethink their country's traditional model of building ever-higher dikes. Taller dikes lead to a greater amount of water behind them—which, in turn, means greater damage when the water overflows, putting at risk 4 million people living in the region.

Launched in 2006, the Room for the River program doesn't reclaim ground from rising waters but instead gives it back—sacrificing some lands to nature so that it spares others. The program comprises more than 30 projects, most of which will be complete by 2015, that range from pushing back dikes to lowering floodplains to deepening riverbeds (see “Let the River Flow,” page 48). When the waters come, they will flow onto empty land rather than homes and businesses.

The most ambitious project is taking place in the city of Nijmegen, where the River Waal bottlenecks and makes a sharp turn—and thus renders the city of 150,000 especially prone to flooding. In 1995, heavy rain and snow swelled the Waal, forcing tens of thousands of residents to evacuate. So that future waters can flow more freely, a US$470 million project will move back dikes and dig a new 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) side channel that will create an urban island. The project lowers the river's water level by about 30 centimeters (one foot), while the new side channel will function as a spillway during high water. The river's island will host a park with a nature preserve.

Dance Partners

During the program's exploration phase, from 2001 to 2006, the Dutch government, realizing that reinforcing dikes was no longer safe or viable, identified the projects that would comprise the Room for the River program.

A hydraulic model—made with a software program that simulates water levels under various scenarios—assessed how effectively the proposed measures would mitigate floods. Each project had a specific goal for the amount of water it would lower. The highest came in at 70 centimeters (28 inches), while the lowest had targets of 5 to 7 centimeters (2 to 2.8 inches)—but even small amounts like those make a big difference, says David W. van Raalten, delta technology sector leader at Arcadis, an international engineering and design firm involved in about half of the Room for the River projects.

Let the River Flow

How the Room for the River program lives up to its name



Dikes are moved farther inland, providing more room for swelling rivers.



Increasing floodplains' depth allows them to better serve as basins for floods.



Making the beds deeper means more water can go inside the river, rather than outside.



Lower groynes—walls built into the water to mitigate erosion—allow faster drainage during floods.



High-water channels branch off the main river to discharge water.



A lake provides temporary water storage under exceptional flood conditions.



Riverbed obstacles such as bridges are removed where possible.



When moving dikes isn't an option, Room for the River makes them stronger.

The Room for the River team prepared for major risks with ecology and soil-quality field data, early organization of the permits needed to purchase the required land, and feasibility studies. Data from these studies, Mr. van Raalten says, indicated areas with polluted soil that would need to be avoided or require remediation—and thus take up more time or money—as well as archeological remains that could result in delays. One project had to change the position of a levee that was five meters (16 feet) high in order to avoid passing through archeological remains.

During the five-year exploration phase, and the 10-plus years of planning and execution, the central Dutch government has collaborated closely and regularly with local governments—which has proved to be the program's overarching challenge, says Cor Beekmans, a senior river expert and member of the board of directors at Room for the River.

When local leaders proposed ideas during the planning phase, the central government listened. “Their ideas were accepted as long as they were safe and in line with the hydraulic requirements: the targeted lowering of the water levels,” Mr. van Raalten says.

“It's a dance, you can say,” Mr. Beekmans says of managing the program's various stakeholders and projects.

To help project managers find their footing in that dance, the government provided them with a detailed guide.

The Soldier Handbook

“Perhaps annoying at certain moments” is how Mr. van Raalten describes the detailed “cookbook” given to each project before construction began, though in the end he found the guide extremely effective. Written and designed by Arcadis, the standardized “soldier handbook” aimed to keep each project on budget and on schedule.


“The idea was for stakeholders to have a voice in the planning phase. Then they start to understand why you have to do this measure. Instead of ‘Not in my backyard,' it became ‘Please, in my backyard.'”

—Cor Beekmans, Room for the River

For instance, in a section on cost estimations, a potential margin of error of 25 percent in one phase would be lowered to 15 percent in the next. “Since you know from the beginning that you have to eliminate these uncertainties,” Mr. van Raalten says, “you are very keen on spotting any potential cost uncertainties,” such as expensive land procurement or soil excavation.

With the program handbook, Room for the River transitioned from abstract to concrete, Mr. Beekmans says. At roughly 120 pages, the bound handbook included checklists, flowcharts and lists of required environmental permits, and it laid out a step-by-step implementation guide for each project.

“The handbook is more extensive than a project plan,” Mr. Beekmans says. “It's about aligning the more than 30 projects within the Room for the River program. This standardization was necessary, considering that we work together on water safety with more than 17 local and regional governments.”

In addition, the handbook indicated the documents that had to be prepared at each stage for check-ins with the Dutch government. “You had to show that before you move to the next step, you've done this or you've done this,” Mr. van Raalten says. “All the documents we had to submit drove me completely mad. They were really checking everything very carefully, and sometimes it was absolutely annoying.”

It may have been annoying, but the handbook helped keep the program's many projects strategically aligned and on schedule: “There was a constant discussion and interaction to make sure the local parties were not stepping out of the process,” Mr. van Raalten says.

Part of the Room for the River program, Lake Volkerak-Zoommeer becomes a temporary water-storage unit when sea and river levels rise

Part of the Room for the River program, Lake Volkerak-Zoommeer becomes a temporary water-storage unit when sea and river levels rise.


The first Room for the River project, at Overdiepse Polder, converted farmland into a river spillway

The first Room for the River project, at Overdiepse Polder, converted farmland into a river spillway.

The central government was so adamant that each project follow the handbook, Mr. van Raalten says, that large checklists from it were pinned to the walls of each project's headquarters, offices where the teams worked, held meetings and greeted locals who dropped by with questions.

On the Move

Room for the River's project managers faced not only an engineering challenge but a human one: People lived on the lands that the program needed. Project managers had to persuade property owners to move so that dikes could be pushed farther inland.

Project teams addressed relocation by communicating extensively with affected citizen stakeholders. Moreover, as obligated by law, residents were offered market value for their homes. “We don't give presents, but we're not looking for bargains either,” Mr. Beekmans says. “For one project alone, we had to buy 150 properties.” Even before the end of the planning phase, the government purchased 70 to 80 percent of the needed lands, Mr. Beekmans says.

The first Room for the River project, which broke ground in 2010 on the Overdiepse Polder, converted farmland into a river spillway for occasional floods—and, in doing so, displaced 18 farming families. Through town-hall meetings and kitchen-table talks, project managers worked to earn the farmers' trust. In the end, eight families stayed, rebuilding their homes on mounds six meters (20 feet) high at the level of the old dikes, and one of the properties was expropriated by the courts. Nine farmers left, and those relocations were “case-by-case, tailor-made solutions,” Mr. Beekmans says.

By the numbers

€2.3 billion
Total budget
of land in the Netherlands sits below sea level.
Total number of projects in the Room for the River program
Projected year of completion for the majority of projects

There were also citizen stakeholders who wouldn't be displaced but would still be affected. Again, project managers proactively addressed their concerns early on. “The idea was for stakeholders to have a voice in the planning phase,” Mr. Beekmans says. “Then they start to understand why you have to do this measure. Instead of ‘Not in my backyard,' it became ‘Please, in my backyard.'”

In Nijmegen, project managers solicited residents' ideas for improving the altered waterfront. Locals asked the municipality for a floating restaurant and a marina in the new channel; on the new island, they wanted an open-nature area surrounding a concert arena. When a group of people living near construction at Nijmegen expressed concerns about street noise, a screen was constructed so they could peacefully walk their dogs nearby.

Money Matters

With past project foibles in mind, the Dutch people expressed skepticism about whether Room for the River would blow its budget. As a result, Mr. Beekmans and his Room for the River colleagues felt an intense sense of accountability.

The touchy subject of the Betuweroute railway project—a line from Rotterdam to the German border—often came up in stakeholder meetings. The project, which ran from 1998 to 2007, had an original budget of €1.1 billion that swelled to €4.7 billion due in part to delays, ineffective cost analysis and added government requests for things like noise barriers and tunnels instead of bridges.

“There was a big discussion around that so it wouldn't happen with Room for the River,” Mr. Beekmans says.

To guard against that type of budget overrun, the Room for the River team implemented careful cost estimation. “Between 2001 and 2006, we knew what measures would be necessary,” Mr. Beekmans says.

The plan “was very well-designed in the cost phase.” In the execution phase, each project team must submit a budget progress report to the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment every six months.

Crucially, the program team took inflation into account, Mr. Beekmans says. The amount needed to purchase a certain material when planning ended in 2006 may not be enough “when you're buying it in 2015,” he says. “This is a 10- to 15-year program. You can't end up with too little money for the amount of work you have to do.”


“Everyone is watching how this program is being implemented.”

—David W. van Raalten, Arcadis

The program budget also benefited from a situation that, on its face, would have seemed to spell trouble: the eurozone debt crisis. Because of the difficult economic environment, contractors were motivated to lower their bids to beat out their competition, Mr. Beekmans says. “The contractors were lower than our budget,” he says. “It was less profit for the contractor, but they wanted to keep workers in the company. For €50 million, they were doing jobs that would have been €60 or €65 million.”

Thanks to rigorous management of the budget and schedule, most Room for the River projects will be complete by 2015, although seven of them will be finished by 2016 or 2017. (One project added to the program in 2013—deepening and adding a bypass channel in the IJssel River—will be finished in 2018.)

With much of the Netherlands' flood security hanging in the balance, the entire country will be keeping an eye on the 2015 deadline, Mr. van Raalten says. “Everyone is watching how this program is being implemented.” PM