How climate-proof is our society?

The consequences of flooding for vital infrastructure

Teun Terpstra and Jean-Marie Buijs

Imagine this. It is February 2020. A heavy north-westerly storm with wind force 11 pushes the water up to an enormous height. Due to an unfortunate combination with spring tide, the dikes break in many places. Fortunately, the population has been warned in time, so that the inhabitants were brought to safety. However, the damage is enormous. There is a large-scale, vital infrastructure failure. Nothing functions anymore in the flooded areas, and gas, water, electricity and telecom facilities are also scarcely available in places where there was no flooding. Even the toilet cannot be flushed. Roads and railroads are badly damaged. The repairs will take several months. Zeeland people are forced to leave the province, just like the people of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina in 2005. The above is a scenario, but what would happen to Zeeland in the event of a flooding such as in 1953? The reality is that we do not know, because the design of vital infrastructure does not consider flooding due to dike breaches. Water safety and vital infrastructure are separate worlds. At least, until recently

Sea level rise

A repetition of 1953 is unimaginable for Zeeland inhabitants. We have the delta works and the dikes are periodically reinforced. In addition, we tightened up the water safety standards of the first Delta Commission in 1953 on the basis of new knowledge about the strength of dikes and the consequences of dike breaches. The Netherlands was already the safest delta in the world and added further to the measures in 2017. Yet our country remains vulnerable, simply because a large part is below sea level. At the same time, an acceleration of sea level rise is expected. An increase of 110 cm in 2100 compared to 1985 is one of the current scenarios. This creates an enormous task for the water safety in the Netherlands. Do we focus solely on creating stronger flood defences, or do we also take flooding into account when constructing infrastructure?

Water-robust infrastructure

At the national level, the ‘Deltaprogramma Ruimtelijke Adaptatie’ (Delta programme on Spatial Adaptation) is busy making the design of vital infrastructure water-robust and climate-proof by 2050. But what does that actually mean? Does it concern all infrastructure, including the small electricity station on the corner of your street, or more likely the larger objects such as high-voltage stations, gas distribution stations, the main water pipeline and telecom masts? And in what way are they interdependent? Before anything can be said about this, research has to be carried out into the vulnerability of objects and the domino effects when one or more components fail due to flooding. And because of the complexity, there is above all: “... a need for a regional-level approach with area-specific information and regional customisation.¹”

Interdisciplinary research in Zeeland

The HZ research group for Water Safety and Spatial Use has therefore, together with the Veiligheidsregio Zeeland (Zeeland Safety Region), the Province of Zeeland, Scheldestromen Water Board, Rijkswaterstaat Zee en Delta, the municipality of Reimerswaal, Deltares and managers of the vital infrastructure, taken up the challenge to conduct research and develop tools with which the vulnerability will be visualised. Within HZ this is done by researchers, students and lecturers from various study programmes. It has resulted in two products. The online tool Vitale Assets and the wiki Waterveiligheid en vitale-infrastructuur in Zeeland.

A great amount of knowledge was required to develop the software tool. Knowledge of the consequences of flooding: if a dike breaks, how high will the water rise? Knowledge of the vital infrastructure: which types of objects are present and at which water depths will they fail to operate? And IT knowledge: how can we visualise and provide explanations for the failure of objects in the event of dike breaches?

Reimerswaal as case study

Because of this complexity, a case study was chosen in the municipality of Reimerswaal. A large amount of vital infrastructure runs through the municipality of Reimerswaal. In the Sloe area, energy is generated and exported to other parts of the Netherlands and abroad. Drinking water, process water and gas are pumped through underground pipes. There are pipelines for industry and the A58 and the railways are very important for the daily transport of goods and people. In addition, there are local networks for gas, electricity, telecom/ICT, drinking water, wastewater, etc. In the municipality of Reimerswaal alone, hundreds of objects are involved. In addition, no fewer than 65 flood simulations of dike breaches are available at various locations and under different storm conditions. Students of Water Management, Civil Engineering, Logistics and Veiligheidskunde (Safety Science) have developed knowledge about possible consequences. The Data Science research group and IT students are involved in the project to make this information manageable. Under the supervision of lecturer-researcher Daan de Waard, five students worked for three months to build the Vitale Assets tool. This has led to a great product that impresses the professionals. The product is therefore currently being developed for the whole of Zeeland in collaboration with the Veiligheidsregio Zeeland and the Province of Zeeland. They have taken over to make it usable in the actual practice for policy development and for making the infrastructure more robust and creating crisis plans. Figure X shows a screenshot of the Vitale Assets tool.


Social issues such as making vital infrastructure water-robust and climate-proofing require interdisciplinary research. This also applies to comparable challenges in the field of climate adaptation and water safety. Collaboration between study programmes and research groups from HZ as a whole is essential to be able to respond to the questions that society has. Are you interested in working together on these types of topics, as a student, a lecturer or a researcher? We would love to hear your ideas!

1) Final report on Spatial Adaptation Status. Client: Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. Delegated client: Spatial Adaptation Steering Group. Authors: Robert de Graaff, John Steegh, Miriam Aerts, Rutger van der Brugge, Arwin van Buuren, Gert Dekker, Gerald Jan Ellen, Albert Elshof, Anne Loeber. Release by: Robert de Graaff. Date: 30 January 30, 2017.

The above article is based on the research conducted by Professor Teun Terpstra, Research Coordinator Jean-Marie Buijs, Lecturer-Researchers Lukas Papenborg and Jasper van den Heuvel of the Water Safety and Spatial Use research group.

The research group focuses on the development of practice-oriented knowledge and instruments for strengthening water safety, climate resilience and the resilience of society in delta areas. The research group carries out project-based research with various organizations in the region and in collaboration with (inter) national knowledge institutions. The aim is to connect our research as much as possible with education through student participation and the translation of results into the curricula.