Planning water-secure and water sensitive cities: learning from the Dutch

Reflections from Delft and Amsterdam

By Amita Bhakta

Within the water sector, we are collectively contending with the global challenges of rapid urbanisation and climate change. Cities around the world are expected to contend with the negative effects of groundwater exploitation over time, leading to a depletion of water tables, decreasing quality of surface water and an increase in salination (Loen, 2020). At the same time, current trends indicate that 6.7 billion people, or over two-thirds of the global population will be living in urban areas by 2050, placing ever-increasing stresses on natural resources including an already depleting water supply, making water security one of the most significant challenges of the future. Water-sensitive cities need to recognise the role of technologies, governance, urban planning and communities in living with fluctuating water levels (Kumar et al 2023).  From a WASH perspective, the Netherlands, deemed a model example of water management and water heritage as the low-lying nation has innovated in flood defence systems such as the landmark Kinderdijk windmills I visited last year, had over 99% access to piped drinking water by 1968 and 100% of households  have access today. 60% of freshwater in the Netherlands comes from groundwater (De Moel et al, 2006), yet Dutch cities and towns have long-established means of ensuring water security through infrastructure. Whilst I have spent over a decade looking at individual needs and the need for equity and inclusion through WASH provision, my thoughts are increasingly turning towards the bigger picture of inclusive urban planning which is sensitive to climate change. To explore the extent to which ever-expanding cities in low- and middle-income countries could adopt and adapt approaches to managing urban water supply and become sensitive to the impacts of climate change, I paid a visit to Delft and Amsterdam in the Netherlands in the summer of 2023.

Institutions and planners play a central role

On a bright sunny day in the picturesque Delft, I hopped on board a boat and took a canal cruise through the city. Delft is dotted with many beautiful historic buildings, and as my boat sailed through the canals, the tour guide pointed out a building which I would later learn had a significant role in the history of Dutch water management. Gemeenlandhuis, or Water Board House, was established in Delft in 1505. One of the earliest residential buildings to have a stone façade in Delft, it has been used as the headquarters of the Delfland water board. Before the water board was established, the management of water in Delft and the local area took a far less formal approach. The system of dykes which were used to manage water flow were regularly checked by the dyke warden and his crew in the area. The dyke warden and his team met in the nearest pub or house in Delft until water management issues were resolved. It was realised that as the city of Delft expanded, formal institutionalisation was needed, and Water Board House became home to the Delfland Water Board.

Gemeenlandhuis (Water Board House), Delft (Photo: Amita Bhakta)

If cities, particularly in the global South, are going to be designed to be water sensitive in the longer term, the Dutch approach in Delft demonstrates how central institutions are to the process. Delft and the Delfland region were affected by flooding in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Research revealed three primary causes: climate change, which is intensifying precipitation and exposing the area to higher temperatures, with a record of 40.7 degrees Celsius in the Netherlands as recently as 2019; peaty soils which lead to ground subsidence, which is worsened by building activities on top of the soil; and increases in paved surfaces including the construction of roads and housing.

The modern-day Delfland Water Board, one of the Netherlands’ 25 water boards, is mainly responsible for ensuring that everyone has enough and clean water, sturdy flood defences, and that wastewater is treated effectively. At the face of it, this is probably no different to what water authorities around the world should be doing! Yet, the critical factor is ensuring that these tasks remain interconnected and able to adapt to the unpredictable impacts of climate change. Planners striving towards the development of water-sensitive cities, from Adelaide in Australia, to Amravati in Maharashtra, India (Kumar et al, 2023) should strive to involve relevant institutions in the process of delivering urban water infrastructure that is able to be resilient to the impacts of climate change. Unless urban planners understand both the challenges facing the water security of cities and the experts who can resolve them, and take a broad view of these problems, cities in the global South could face significant challenges in meeting the goal of providing water for all by 2030 in a changing climate.

Infrastructure and participation is key, but solutions are context-specific

Cities cannot be sensitive to changes in levels of water flowing through them whilst continuing to meet the needs of their ever-expanding populations without adequate infrastructure. As I walked through parts of Delft and Amsterdam during my visit, bodies of water were never far away. Canals were to be found a mere few minutes away from each place that I stopped at and were a delightful way to be connected to nature in the middle of urban Netherlands. In Delft, the tree-lined engineered waterways that flowed under the quaint footbridges I crossed not only provide a sense of tranquillity, but critically control the water that would otherwise turn it into a marsh. The name Delft originates from the Dutch word for dig, delven, which translates to ‘delve into something. The three main north-south canals, or grachten in Dutch, and east-west ditches, or sloten, to drain local fields and pastures, were dug between 1100 and 1246 when the city’s first rights were granted, with Oude Delft being the oldest. Delft had an intricate system of waterways by 1560. The canals of Delft were not only modes for transportation, but once provided a source of water for brewing beer. Yet, the 2.5m deep canals were also used to discharge wastewater, and once acted as the sewer systems for the town (and as my guide noted on the boat tour, were rather smelly!). Aside from bikes landing on the canal bed from local students, the quality of water has improved a lot. Amsterdam, which lies 2m below sea level, also has an intricate network of canals spanning over 100km. Built in the 17th century, Amsterdam’s canals were built not only for defence and residential development, but also for managing excess water in the city.  Both Amsterdam and Delft are exposed to continued risk of flooding, and canals play a key role in draining water, and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by providing the scope to use boats as a form of transportation, as has been done in parts of Asia. The canals of Amsterdam and Delft contribute to enabling these urban areas to be water sensitive because they control the flow of water and prevent them from flooding. Without them, they would be deep underwater!

Canal infrastructure has shown some benefits in cities of the global South. In India for example, there is recognition that cities such as Chennai need to widen their existing canals to accommodate for the onset of increased flooding. Meanwhile in Shenyang, China, efforts to upgrade the canal system are striving towards improving water quality and reducing smell, emphasising the importance of water bodies such as canals for healthier cities with pleasant environments.

Participation of local communities is also key to ensuring water sensitivity. In parts of the Netherlands such as Utrecht, local communities have been key to restoring the water quality of the canals through a ‘greening’ process. Student competitions held at universities in India have explored possibilities to take into account the ways in which local urban neighbourhoods around the Buckingham Canal in Chennai can be built as potential ‘sponges’ for excess water, paving ways to work with the changing levels of canal water. These competitions involved participatory processes in which the students consulted local residents about the issues that matter to them.

Whilst there may be some scope for the WASH sector to take note of the examples set by the Dutch through the development of these canals, as cities across low- and middle-income countries contend with  the challenges of climate change, there are also drawbacks. Replicability from the global North to South is easier said than done.. In large part, this is due to a lack of other forms of basic infrastructure. For instance, cities such as Jakarta in Indonesia and Alleppey in India continue to battle against the clogging of its canals with domestic waste, due to poor waste management systems. In other parts of the world, flagship projects such as the Panama Canal, a route for transporting goods, are drying up due to the impacts of climate change.

Canal in Delft (Photo: Amita Bhakta)


Canal in Amsterdam (Photo: Amita Bhakta)


Moving forward

Planning cities that can live with changes to water levels in the era of climate change is no easy task. As a country lying below sea level, the Netherlands has had to learn to live with water in many ways, among them, the many canals that characterise its cities. There is scope for water-sensitive cities across low- and middle-income countries to become a reality through learning from the Dutch approaches to governance, infrastructure, and local participation, which have enabled the canals to keep the Netherlands from sinking under water. However, ensuring that cities are not flooded or facing drought requires thorough infrastructure planning for the local context and local community engagement. So on the one hand, whilst these may not sound new, it is important that water-sensitive cities begin to put these approaches into practice from now, if climate-induced challenges to water security are to be addressed.

About the author

Amita Bhakta is a researcher traditionally specialising in inclusive WASH. A geographer by training, Amita is experienced in climate change-related challenges and urban planning, with interests in pursuing these further in the WASH sector.

Amita in the Netherlands, August 2023 (Photo: Claire Furlong)


De Moel, P., Verberk. J., Van Dijk, J. (2006) Drinking water: principles and practices. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing

Kumar, S., Doshi, S. Mishra, G. and Iyer, M. (2023) Fostering water-sensitive urban planning in G20 cities T20 Policy Brief

Loen, S. (2020) “Thirsty Cities: Learning from Dutch Water Supply Heritage” in Hein, C. (ed.) Adaptive Strategies for Water Heritage: Past, Present and Future Cham: Springer Nature Switzerland pp.79-106