Flood disaster in Limburg

In July, after more than 25 years, Limburg once again experienced the power of the Maas River. Heavy rains in the nearby hilly parts of Germany, the Ardennes region in Belgium, and Belgian Limburg caused the Maas (Meuse) river to quickly swell, resulting in severe flooding in many parts of western Germany, the East of Belgium, and the southernmost province of the Netherlands, Limburg.

Although scores of houses were flooded, thousands of people had to be evacuated, and at least one bridge was destroyed in Valkenburg, the situation in the Netherlands is not nearly as bad as in the neighboring German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia and the Belgian city of Liège, where 165 people were confirmed dead and dozens went missing.

In the Netherlands, thousands of people in towns villages next to the river Maas, including Roermond, Roerdalen, and other smaller towns, had to evacuate, leaving their homes and possessions behind. Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the situation ‘extremely serious’ and the flooded areas of Limburg were declared disaster zones.

The Maas (Meuse)
The Maas is one of the major European rivers at 950km long. It rises in France and then flows through Belgium and the Netherlands, emptying into the North Sea via the Dutch river delta. As a rain river, its water levels are highly dependent on the amount of rainfall. The Maas water level is high in winter, when it often rains, and much lower in summer. Most of the rain comes from the French and Belgian Ardennes, where the surface is too rocky to be able to store much water.

Mass floods over the centuries
It is not the first time Limburg has been flooded due to the heavy rains. At the flooding of the Maas in 1643, the water reached the highest level recorded in centuries. The flux of the water discharged was estimated at 3,600 cubic meters per second, 15 times more than the average discharge of the Maas, devastating property and killing hundreds.

Due to the widening and deepening of the Maas since 1840, the water now drains faster than before. The embankment ensured that water couldn’t spill and store anywhere, causing many floods in the 20th century. The flooding in January 1926 is known as one of the most catastrophic floods of the 20th century – areas in the provinces of Limburg, North Brabant, and Gelderland were flooded.

In the 90s, the province had to deal with much more quantities of water and far larger parts of the province were flooded. In December 1993, the Maas overflowed its banks again, drowning 8% of the surface of the province Limburg. The total damage amounted to 254 million guilders. A little over a year later, in January 1995, the dangerously high levels of the Maas, Rhine, Waal, and IJssel rivers led to one of the largest evacuations (250,000 people) in recent Dutch history.

Flood prevention measures
To prevent future catastrophes, the Flemish and Dutch governments entered into a collaborative project. Under the Border Maas project, the river was widened to give more space to water and in turn reduce the height of the water level. It was hoped that it would also lead to the ecological recovery of the river and its floodplains.

One of the biggest flood prevention programs, ‘Room for the River’ was activated in 2006 with a budget of around 2.2 billion euros. The project was mostly set in the Netherlands, but should eventually include Germany, France, and Switzerland. The project covered flood prevention measures from the river Rhine, the Maas, the Waal, and the IJssel. Under the program, the government planned to:

  • Relocate the dykes farther from the river shore giving additional space to the river
  • Increase the depth of the flood plains by removing the sediments collected in the area due to annual flooding
  • Reduce the height of groynes
  • Construct a green channel to serve as a flood bypass
  • Lower the depth of the side channels to increase the barrier between the river and the infrastructure and residents
  • Remove obstacles such as the hydraulic bridge at Oosterbeek.

Flood of July 2021
In July 2021, despite all the measures, the Maas was barely able to hold the high volumes of water discharged within a short number of days. The low-lying parts of the city of Liège, some neighbourhoods in Maastricht, Roermond, Venlo, Valkenburg and various villages along the Maas had to be evacuated at short notice.

On 16 July 2021, the Maas broke all its records since the 17th century, reaching a flux of 3168 cubic meters per second, 20 times more than the average. The water levels were at a record high at 5m above the NAP (the true Amsterdam water level used for measurement across Europe), and described as ‘just below the doom scenario’.

“What we are experiencing now has never happened before in the history of our province,” says dijkgraaf Patrick van der Broek of the Limburg water authority. “Over the past few days, an extreme amount of rain has fallen in our area, in combination with an extreme amount of water coming our way from the Belgian Ardennes, Germany, and France.” The dijkgraaf cannot imagine what Limburg would have been like without the measures taken under the ‘Room for the River’ project.

“The situation is very unique not only because the water level and discharge have become extremely high in a short time, but also because this happened in the summer,” a Rijkswaterstaat spokesperson said in an interview with nu.nl.

Nevertheless, the flood prevention measures seemed to have some effect, as the damage was not nearly as bad as in the previous floods. There were no personal accidents in the Netherlands, even though Valkenburg was hit the hardest, with one of its bridges and the Eurlings weather station, along with weather data of the past two decades, destroyed by the floods. The army was brought in to build an emergency bridge over the River Geul after the original bridge was washed away. The Geul itself has been turned into a wild river dozens of meters wide, which has brought muddy water to low-lying parts of the town.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima flew to Valkenburg, immediately after Princess Amalia’s high school graduation ceremony. They spoke to residents, entrepreneurs and social workers, giving them strength and encouragement.

Belgium and Germany
“This may be the worst flooding disaster our country has ever known,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo, who declared Monday 19 July, a national day of mourning. Additional search and rescue teams have been brought in from France and Italy to help locate the missing and assist with the cleanup.

In western Germany, firefighters carried out more than 1,000 search and rescue missions, which were complicated by the fact that the floods had cut power lines, disabling cellphone towers. “I mourn for those who have lost their lives in this catastrophe,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Collection and relief campaigns
After the floodwaters had receded, at Valkenburg the damage was assessed at 400 million euros. The National Disaster Fund opened the bank account number 777 for private individuals, companies, and institutions who want to contribute to the flood-affected areas of South Limburg. Within a week the funds reached to an impressive amount of 9.3 million euros.

The fundraising site GoFundMe also saw several campaigns initiated in a short time to help animals and humans alike in the flood affected areas. A fundraiser was started for fishing club De Springende Beektroel that suffered significant damage during the flood – an estimated 4000 kilos of fish disappeared from the pond, amounting to approximately 17,500 euros.

Is the Netherlands prepared for future catastrophes?
Douwe Meijer, a hydraulics engineer at RiQuest, a company specializing in issues related to river, along with his colleagues did an analysis of flood risk management and its development since 1995. “When I read the reports, it seems as if we had a crystal ball,” he says. “A previous report from May this year indicates that in the weakest spots, such as the Maastricht neighbourhoods of Heugem and Randwyck, the dykes were not high enough – exactly the place where it almost went wrong.”

According to Meijer, just enough has been done to avert critical situations, but much more needs to be done. “We need to pay attention to the smaller rivers in hilly areas that can swell quickly and become huge.” Meijer has been involved with the Maas and its related projects throughout his career. “We have outperformed our neighbouring countries but there is definitely room for improvement. For example, there are places where the height of the dykes falls short of the standards, which have been tightened due to climate change.”

“If we don’t have high waters for a few years, the focus on river management quickly wanes. The local people’s opposition to any change in the landscape doesn’t help either. When there is a virus outbreak or a financial crisis, we have billons of euros available, but when it comes to climate crisis, we fall short of funds.” He believes that the government needs to stay on top of things and remain alert.

It is evident that with increasing climate change and unpredictable weather patterns, the occurrence of phenomena such as these floods will only become more frequent. If this amount of rain fell in the Randstad, neither Rotterdam nor Delft would have been able to handle it. Can we rely on the assumption that the July floods were an anomaly? Probably not. We need to be better prepared for whatever nature throws our way.

Written by Priyanka Sharma