Diversification of flood risk management modes: Lessons from Europe

By Dries Hegger

Summary: Resilient flood governance: link water managers, planners, contingency agencies and private parties; build on previous approaches.

The European project STAR-FLOOD has investigated efforts to diversify flood risk management (FRM) modes in Belgium, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. Findings from the project show that a range of FRM modes will be required to anticipate the consequences of urbanization and climate change.

The investigated countries are increasingly looking for approaches that are either fail-safe or safe-to-fail. Fail-safe refers to a system that decreases the probability of flooding, while safe-to-fail refers to an approach that can fail, but is likely to do so in a safe way. Fail-safe design is not always desirable, as it could invoke a safety paradox by triggering urban development in flood-prone but dike-protected areas, nor is it always possible. Therefore, both approaches are necessary.

Five modes of flood risk management

The STAR-FLOOD project identified five modes of FRM. In stakeholder workshops and during conferences, this scheme showed its practical value as a communicative tool that helps structure dialogues about flood risk governance approaches. These five modes are depicted in Table 1.


Table 1. Five modes of FRM adapted from Driessen et al., 2018

1. Flood risk prevention

  • aim: decrease the consequences of flooding
  • decrease exposure
  • ‘keep people away from water’
  • restrict building in flood-prone areas

2. Flood defense

  • aim: decrease the probability of flooding
  • structural measures
  • ‘keep water away from people’
  • dikes, dams, embankments, increasing the capacity of existing water channels, upstream retention


3. Flood risk mitigation

  • aim: decrease the consequences of floods
  • measures inside the vulnerable area
  • smart design & water retention in urban environments
  • smart spatial ordering inside urban areas, water retention in protected areas, or flood-proof buildings

4. Flood preparation

  • aim: decrease the consequences of floods
  • prepare for a flood event
  • flood forecasting and warning systems & disaster management/evacuation plans

5. Flood recovery

  • aim: recovery after a flood event
  • reconstruction or rebuilding plans & compensation/insurance systems


Challenges customizing the five modes

As the project revealed, countries tend to encounter specific challenges when they attempt to customize FRM modes for their particular requirements. For example, in the past, Poland and the Netherlands focused primarily on flood defenses. The Netherlands is internationally renowned for its track record in ‘fighting against the water’. Likewise, in Poland, sound defense structures are seen as ideal, even though Polish water management agencies lack adequate resources to construct and maintain them. As well, in these two countries, the primary responsibility for FRM lies with water authorities, giving these authorities significant power.

The leadership of water authorities explains why innovative FRM approaches in these countries mostly emerge as part of flood defense strategies (e.g. Room for the River), and only to a lesser extent in flood mitigation strategies. Providing ‘Room for the River’ refers to approaches that aim to give rivers more room so that they can manage higher water levels. Typical measures include river widening/deepening, dredging, creating bypass channels and dike relocations (amongst other measures). These approaches have in common that they involve management of the river system.

Experiences in these countries indicate that past investments in flood defense also tend to lead to a ‘locked-in’ situation. In the Netherlands, urban development in flood-prone areas remains more or less the default option, since more than half of the country’s surface can potentially be flooded. Existing pathways of urban development are unlikely to be reversed. Therefore, despite the relative success of the Netherlands in reducing flood probabilities, a debate has started on approaches to better deal with the potentially disastrous effects of floods when they do occur (PBL, 2014).

England presents a different example. England has been struck by several floods in the past years, including in Somerset in 2014. One might accordingly assess England’s FRM approach as less effective than that in the Netherlands, for example. However, the STAR-FLOOD project found that FRM in England has been diversified for several decades, and “that England’s portfolio of management approaches can be diagnosed as balanced…showing a high degree of diversity, although the effectiveness of specific approaches was found to need improvement” (Driessen et al., 2018, p. 5). In particular, England “has a range of approaches at its disposal, each of them tailored to specific circumstances in terms of the physical characteristics of an area and the potential for damage and economic loss” (ibid). Still, claiming ‘there is also something good in floods’ goes against the losses and strong emotions of those who have become the flood victims.

Strengthening additional strategies

FRM approaches from Belgium, France and Swedes can be positioned between the extremes. Each country is strengthening specific additional strategies: flood prevention and mitigation in Belgium; flood prevention in France; and flood preparation in Sweden (Driessen et al., 2018).

The findings of this European project conveyed two key lessons with broad relevance (Raadgever and Hegger, 2018):

  • Context-sensitive planning and implementation are necessary. Diversification of FRM modes is desirable, but the extent and ways in which diversification takes place depend strongly on legacies left by previous actors and approaches.
  • Flood management cannot be left to water managers alone but requires the involvement of spatial planners, contingency agencies, insurance companies and private actors, including citizens. It is crucial to engage these actors in dialogues about desired levels of flood protection and appropriate approaches to realizing these. This requirement points to one overall governance challenge: to build “bridges over troubled waters” (Gilissen et al., 2015).

This research shows that more practical experience with diversification of FRM modes and multi-actor collaboration needs to be gained. These experiences should be closely monitored to allow for lesson drawing and inter-country learning.

Bibliographical note

Dr. Dries Hegger is an assistant professor in regional water and climate governance at the Environmental Governance section, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. This section initiated and coordinated the STAR-FLOOD project. He furthermore teaches undergraduate and graduate courses related to the topics of his research. He can be reached at d.l.t.hegger@uu.nl.


Driessen, P.P.J., Hegger, D.L.T., Kundzewicz, Z.W., van Rijswick, H.F.M.W., Crabbé, A., Larrue, C., Matczak, P., Pettersson, M., Priest, S., Suykens, C., Raadgever, G.T., Wiering, M. (2018) ‘Governance strategies for improving flood resilience in the face of climate change.’ Water, 10 (11), 1595. doi.org/10.3390/w10111595

Gilissen, H.K., Alexander, M., Beyers, J.-C., Chmielewski, P., Matczak, P., Schellenberger, T., Suykens, C. (2015) ‘Bridges over troubled waters: An interdisciplinary framework for evaluating the interconnectedness within fragmented domestic flood risk management systems.’ Journal of Water Law, 25 (1), pp. 12-26.

PBL (2014) Kleine kansen, grote gevolgen. Slachtoffers en maatschappelijke ontwrichting als focus voor het waterveiligheidsbeleid. The Hague: PBL The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

Raadgever, T., Hegger, D. (2018) Flood risk management strategies and governance. Dordrecht: Springer.