The Room for the River programme – giving rivers space to roam
How do we create a safer river delta while at the same time ensuring an attractive living environment? This is the question that the Dutch Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management (Rijkswaterstaat) sought to answer through its Room for the River program. With this program, the emphasis was shifted from reinforcing dikes to creating more space for the river, with an unprecedented focus on the spatial quality of the whole river delta.
Where dikes used to be reinforced and made higher to contain the river, there are now over thirty areas where the rivers IJssel, Waal, Lek, and Nederrijn have more space to expand. Between 2013 and 2018, the Room for the River Programme comprised as many as 34 projects.
The program came under the responsibility of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature, and Food Quality, and their ministerial predecessors. The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management was the implementing agency in charge of the program. In total, seven provincial authorities, eight water boards, and thirty municipal authorities took part in the project. Implementation of the program has ensured better flood protection for residents and improved the spatial quality of the river delta. To make this happen, the program looked for innovative solutions that would give rivers more space. In the selection of contractors to work on the various projects, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management liaised intensively with provincial authorities, water boards, and municipal authorities. Responsibilities were devolved to local authorities as much as possible.
For years, the Netherlands’ policy to keep people safe from flooding was all about making dikes higher. However, this was not the solution everywhere to guarantee residents’ safety. Given current climate predictions, it will rain more and harder in the Netherlands, and the country needs to be able to defend itself against all that extra water. In this light, it is important that the authorities be able to lower the water level when necessary. And this is possible only by creating more space for rivers to flow, which is exactly what the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management has done. However, in some areas, this extra space for the river has led to drastic changes to people’s living environment.
To handle this delicate matter appropriately, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management struck up close collaborations with water boards, municipal authorities, and other local parties. The State's ambition was to create an impulse in areas that would see changes. Each area is different, and residents needed different things in their area. It was a prime opportunity for the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management to actively engage with local actors and harness their knowledge and ideas for their local area. Solutions were designed in partnership with the people themselves. The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management set out the framework, but entered into dialogue within those boundaries, engaging with residents and local parties in areas where the projects would take place.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
Besides the fact that widening rivers instead of reinforcing dikes is in itself an innovation, this method also produced excellent innovations in the various projects that were carried out. Improving the safety and spatial quality of an area involved the combination of various purposes, such as by creating recreational areas where adjustments were made to the river’s environment. The multifunctional dike in Munnikenland, for example, not only provides flood protection but also serves as a place that cattle can flee to when the water level rises. And by grazing there, the cows take care of dike maintenance, which improves river flow. The dike has also been widened, with bike paths and footpaths running along the top of the dike to create a vantage point from which people can take in the stunning landscape. This is an innovative way to incorporate administrative flexibility, as the downsides of the project offered opportunities for an impulse in spatial quality.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The program was carried out over the period of 2013-2018. High water levels at the beginning of 2018 did not create any problems, proving this approach to water safety to have been successful.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, various government ministries, water boards, provincial authorities, and municipal authorities were all involved in the program. On top of the efforts of existing institutions, a Reflection Committee on Water was a catalyst for change and a political stimulator for the innovative process approach. Local parties, citizens and market parties were also involved at an early stage to come up with innovations.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens benefited greatly from the program, which provided them with flood protection, but also recreational benefits. However, in some places, it had consequences for the farmers living there. When desoldering land (giving it back to the river), the land is generally not fit for habitation. An interest group got the idea to build houses on top of small mounds (called 'terps') to enable farmers to continue to live and keep their cattle in the area.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
Thanks to the various Room for the River projects, four million people living in the Netherlands’ river delta are better protected against flooding because there is now less pressure on the dikes when water levels rise. The spatial quality of the river delta has also been improved and there are more recreation areas, which means that the local economy also benefits. Working together with local parties and getting market parties involved at an early stage has propelled the development of new technological innovations.
Challenges and Failures
The main challenge that the Dutch Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management faced was to make the river delta safer and also turn it into an attractive living environment.
They opted for an approach where they struck up close partnerships with other parties to produce an integrated design. There was no blueprint and solutions were formulated in collaboration with local residents and stakeholders, which sometimes led to tension between innovators and project managers who wanted to put progress and finances first in running the program.
Conditions for Success
The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management opted to run the Room for the River program in close collaboration with water boards, municipal authorities, provincial authorities, local parties, and residents. The market was also involved at an early stage, allowing the program to start working on product innovation as early as during the preparatory stage. Contractors were expected to suggest innovative ideas that would see the program reach its targets.
Throughout the Room for the River program, the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management assumed a different role than it would normally have. They looked for measures that tied in with local interests, without pursuing their own agenda. The Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management shaped the dialogue between parties. With respect to the various projects, they adopted a facilitatory role, while taking on the coordinator and controller role on a national political level.
This approach would be relatively easy to replicate in countries where, like in the Netherlands, water poses a constant threat. This goes both for the process innovations and the dozens of product innovations that were implemented through this program. Process innovations included the way in which the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management dealt with the water (giving it space to roam instead of squeezing it between reinforced dikes), and how they struck up partnerships with the market and local residents. Product innovations came in the form of the technological applications or design innovations, such as the building of houses and company premises on top of small mounds, so-called ‘terps’, and the integration of renewable energy generation.
One important lesson learned from the Room for the River program is that what is needed is a different approach to water. Create room for the water instead of restricting it by continuously reinforcing dikes and making them higher. And create room for innovations by persistently looking for suitable solutions in various areas. Combining different purposes, such as by making an area safer to live in while also creating recreational facilities in the process, has resulted in an attractive and liveable river delta. Inputting these applications into practice, the Dutch Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management worked closely together with all stakeholders.