The municipality of Maaseik was in great danger last year, but an artificial dam to stop the swollen Meuse River did its job.
Rob Engelaar

Experts make suggestions on how to protect Flanders against a "water bomb": "Act now or it will be too late"

A panel of experts has come up with a complete report containing 10 plans of action to prepare Flanders for torrential rain in the future. The aim is to avoid that a so-called "water bomb", a sudden period of intense, unprecedented rainfall, would cause as much damage as in eastern Belgium one year ago. 

The effects of climate change can be seen anywhere in the world. Some regions have prolonged periods of drought, including heavy bushfires, while others have to battle severe floods. Belgium also got a severe warning last year with the floods in eastern Belgium. 

Flanders does not have a good reputation where water manegement is concerned: the paved surface is too large, with excess water easily causing local floods. It has been calculated that a "water bomb" like the one dropped on eastern Belgium last year, could cause up to 8 billion euros in damage, in a worst case scenario. 

Experts have compiled a report on what to do, but warn that there is no such thing as a "zero risk". Their advice includes:

  • Give water the necessary space. "Otherwise the water will find the space for itself", says Henk Ovink, the Dutch water expert who headed the panel of experts. Natural valleys should have more (natural) floodable areas instead of the man-made water basins used during heavy rain now. Policies will have to be worked out to avoid conflicts with farming areas or isolated constructions to allow the creation of such areas.
  • the Flemish landscape should have more areas that can hold the water like a spunge, to avoid that rivers become swollen too quickly. Farmers could play a role here, creating more bushes and small green areas along their fields.
  • The paved surface in urban areas should be reduced. Stone or concrete should make room for green space that lets the water enter the soil to reduce pressure on local sewage systems in case of heavy downpours. This measure, like others in this report, can also help to keep ground water levels as high as possible, which is important in times of drought. It is a measure that was imposed years ago, under the Blue Deal of the Flemish Environment Minister Zuhal Demir (nationalist) but experts think it is not going fast enough. 
  • There should be a special Commissioner concerned with water issues, coordinating all things connected to droughts or floods. 
  • A special "water security fund" should be created in a sustainable way to guarantee the necessary funding for the proposed water measures.  

Water policies in Flanders should be intensified and accelerated

Flanders' approach of water issues, both drought and floods, should be intensified and accelerated, experts estimate. "Otherwise climate change will be faster than us. It is time to act now or it will be too late", is their conclusion. 

The Flemish government will now look into the report to see which concrete measures can be adopted. Both Environment Minister Zuhal Demir and her Mobility and Infrastructure colleague Lydia Peeters (liberal) have said they support the report's main conclusions. 

Last year's floods in eastern Belgium were unprecedented:

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