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Doctoral research into flood governance responsibilities

On 10 February 2017, KWR researcher Emmy Bergsma was granted her doctorate by the University of Amsterdam. Now that climate change is raising the risk of flooding, flood-damage prevention, besides the reinforcement of dikes, is increasingly turning to a flood-resilient spatial-planning approach. Bergsma examined the extent to which shifts of responsibilities to the local level, which accompany spatial-planning measures, are recognised in the democratic decision-making process. Her conclusions are also of interest to the drinking water sector, since it is also increasingly subject to the decentralisation of responsibilities.

Shifting responsibilities in flood governance

Costs associated with floods have risen sharply over the past few years. Policy-makers all over the world are struggling with how to deal with these rising costs. Under the traditional ‘protection’ approach, national governments themselves finance most of these costs. They invest in flood-protection measures and underwrite the (private) damages whenever the protection fails. But now that climate change is raising the risk of flooding, flood-damage prevention, besides the reinforcement of dikes, is increasingly turning to a flood-resilient spatial-planning approach. These measures, which fall under the heading of ‘spatial adaptation’, make greater demands on municipalities, citizens and companies. This therefore has consequences for the way in which flood governance responsibilities are divided.

Political debate needed

In her doctoral thesis Bergsma examined the extent to which shifts of responsibilities to the local level, which accompany spatial-planning measures, are recognised in the democratic decision-making process. She researched this both in the Netherlands and the United States. On the basis of an analysis of parliamentary debates, she concluded that although the Netherlands remained committed to dike reinforcement, increasing emphasis is being placed on spatial adaptation. The consequences of this development for municipalities, citizens and companies have however not been raised in the Dutch debate so far. In the United States, where the transition to a spatial-planning approach was made back in the 1960s, these consequences have been studied in detail by social geographers. Bergsma advises policy-makers in the Netherlands to draw more on the knowledge of social geographers; they can clarify the consequences of a spatial adaptation approach, and thereby contribute to better-founded deliberations in flood governance.

Bergsma has been working for a year as a researcher at KWR, where she dedicates part of her time to the same set of issues. The drinking water sector is also subject to a process of decentralisation of responsibilities (think of the Environmental and Planning Act, for instance), which is legitimised on the grounds of national efficiency: regions can provide tailored solutions, but only within the framework of national regulations. In her current research Bergsma is looking at the implications of this central-government withdrawal for regional and local parties in the watercycle (water companies, waterboards, municipalities, citizens), so as to better underpin the debate on the question.