By Rich Hume
With 20 percent of its land below sea level and more than half of the country vulnerable to flooding, The Netherlands depends on a vast network of dykes and sluices to hold back and divert sea, river and rain water. For most of the past 500 years, the ever-evolving system has done its job admirably. (An exception came in 1953, with flooding that caused the deaths of 1800 people.) Yet global warming and the threat of rising sea levels but also more droughts means the Dutch can’t rest on their laurels. So the government is launching an innovative collaboration aimed at harnessing big data to improve management of the water system while restraining cost increases.
The Digital Delta initiative brings together the Dutch Ministry of Water (Rijkswaterstaat), the Delfland local water authority, the Deltares science institute, the University of Delft, IBM and other organizations. IBM’s role is to research how to integrate and open up water-related data from the more than 100 ongoing projects that produce it, and make it available to organizations, scientists and businesses to draw insights from. The expectation is that when businesses and scientists have easy access to relevant data and tools for analyzing it, they will be able to reduce the time it takes to develop new science and technology solutions from an average of 2 years to six months and reduce development costs by up to 30 percent.
This project could serve as a model for countries, regions and cities worldwide that face large and complex challenges due to climate change, natural disasters, rapid urbanization and other large-scale problems. The Dutch government didn’t try to solve this problem by itself. Instead, it formed a public-private partnership drawing on the expertise and resources of government, local water authorities, universities and private industry.
This governance approach, and the technology underlying the project, could be particularly helpful for communities in close proximity to the world’s river deltas. There, flooding and draught play havoc with agriculture, industry, buildings and transportation systems—in addition to threatening lives. These places are especially vulnerable to sea level and ground water changes. Global sea level has already risen by 4 to 8 inches in the past century, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels could rise 10 to 23 inches by 2100. At the same time, some cities are subsiding, mainly as a result of ground water extraction.
Faced with these possibilities, even places like the Netherlands, which has the current water issues well under control, must try new approaches—in part by integrating the operations of existing water-control systems. The Dutch already spend 7 billion Euros per year on water management, and that total is expected to increase by 1 to 2 billion Euros a year by 2020. So the Dutch Ministry for Water three years ago began exploring ways of using technologies to manage water more effectively and efficiently. Those efforts led ultimately to the Digital Delta project. The expectation is that with better information, local water authorities will be able to prevent disasters and environmental degradation, and trim 10 percent to 15 percent out of the cost of managing water.
The project has several elements. Among them:
High resolution urban flood warning system: By gathering detailed weather information and real-time data from sensors in the water system, authorities will be able to predict flooding of tunnels well ahead of time and take action to head it off.
Water supply balancing: Sharing of real time data will improve prediction models, enabling water officials to discharge water from storage areas in anticipation of flooding. They’ll also be able to retain water to address looming shortages that might result in salt water intrusion damaging agriculture and drinking water production.
Status-based-maintenance: Through the use of inexpensive sensors in dykes, sluices, pipes, tunnels and roadways, authorities will be able to spot potential vulnerabilities ahead of time and schedule preventive maintenance. They’ll be able to focus on impending problems and not expend resources on repairs that aren’t required.
In recent weeks, widespread flooding has brought misery and destruction to much of Central Europe. Yet the Netherlands, which provides the outlet to the sea for the Rhine and other major pan-European rivers, has avoided problems—largely due to the ingenuity of the Dutch people. The Digital Delta project offers the promise of safety for the people and security for the economy for years to come. And it could teach leaders elsewhere valuable lessons about how to cope with rising waters and extreme weather events, lessons that, unfortunately, seem likely to prove valuable in the years and decades ahead. Society faces major challenges, but, with innovative solutions, we can deal with them.