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Hegger, D. L. T., P. P. J. Driessen, M. Wiering, H. F. M. W. Van Rijswick, Z. W. Kundzewicz, P. Matczak, A. Crabbé, G. T. Raadgever, M. H. N. Bakker, S. J. Priest, C. Larrue, and K. Ek. 2016. Toward more flood resilience: Is a diversification of flood risk management strategies the way forward? Ecology and Society 21(4):52.
Research, part of a special feature on Toward More Resilient Flood Risk Governance

Toward more flood resilience: Is a diversification of flood risk management strategies the way forward?

1Environmental Governance, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, The Netherlands, 2Institute for Management Research, Radboud University, Nijmegen, the Netherlands, 3Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law, Utrecht University School of Law, The Netherlands, 4Institute for Agricultural and Forest Environment, Polish Academy of Sciences, Poznan, Poland, 5Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany, 6Institute of Sociology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland, 7University of Antwerp (Belgium), Research Group Society & Environment, 8Sweco Netherlands B.V., De Bilt, The Netherlands, 9Flood Hazard Research Centre, Middlesex University, UK, 10Paris School of Planning, Lab'Urba, Paris Est University, France, 11Luleå University of Technology, Sweden


European countries face increasing flood risks because of urbanization, increase of exposure and damage potential, and the effects of climate change. In literature and in practice, it is argued that a diversification of strategies for flood risk management (FRM), including flood risk prevention (through proactive spatial planning), flood defense, flood risk mitigation, flood preparation, and flood recovery, makes countries more flood resilient. Although this thesis is plausible, it should still be empirically scrutinized. We aim to do this. Drawing on existing literature we operationalize the notion of “flood resilience” into three capacities: capacity to resist; capacity to absorb and recover; and capacity to transform and adapt. Based on findings from the EU FP7 project STAR-FLOOD, we explore the degree of diversification of FRM strategies and related flood risk governance arrangements at the national level in Belgium, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden, as well as these countries’ achievement in terms of the three capacities. We found that the Netherlands and to a lesser extent Belgium have a strong capacity to resist, France a strong capacity to absorb and recover, and especially England a high capacity to transform and adapt. Having a diverse portfolio of FRM strategies in place may be conducive to high achievements related to the capacities to absorb/recover and to transform and adapt. Hence, we conclude that diversification of FRM strategies contributes to resilience. However, the diversification thesis should be nuanced in the sense that there are different ways to be resilient. First, the three capacities imply different rationales and normative starting points for flood risk governance, the choice between which is inherently political. Second, we found trade-offs between the three capacities, e.g., being resistant seems to lower the possibility to be absorbent. Third, to explain countries’ achievements in terms of resilience, the strategies’ feasibility in specific physical circumstances and their fit in existing institutional contexts (appropriateness), as well as the establishment of links between strategies, through bridging mechanisms, have also been shown to be crucial factors. We provide much needed reflection on the implications of this diagnosis for governments, private parties, and citizens who want to increase flood resilience.
Key words: Belgium; capacity to absorb and recover; capacity to resist; capacity to transform and adapt; comparison; diversification of flood risk management strategies; England; Europe; evaluation; flood risk governance; France; the Netherlands; Poland; resilience; Sweden


The vast literature on the need to manage the resilience of social-ecological systems has paid much attention to flood risk management (FRM) and its strategies (Aerts et al. 2008, Klijn et al. 2008, Wardekker et al. 2010, Kellens et al. 2013). Five basic types of strategies can be identified (Table 1): flood risk prevention (through proactive spatial planning), flood defense, flood risk mitigation, flood preparation, and flood recovery (Hegger et al. 2014). In literature and in practice, it is increasingly argued that a diversification, coordination, and alignment of these flood risk management strategies (FRMSs) will make urban agglomerations more resilient to flood risks, e.g., by focusing on both probability and consequence-reducing approaches, by tailoring these approaches to the magnitude of the risk and to the types of flooding, e.g., pluvial, fluvial, coastal, and flash floods (Aerts et al. 2008, Wardekker et al. 2010, Innocenti and Albrito 2011, van den Brink et al. 2011, Hegger et al. 2014, Mees et al. 2014). Diversification would lead to more redundancy and choice options, flexibility, and adaptability of flood risk management. This is said to require new governance arrangements behind the strategies, changes in existing arrangements, and their linking together and alignment (Hegger et al. 2014). Flood risk governance arrangements (FRGAs) have been defined as institutional constellations resulting from an interplay between actors and actor coalitions involved in all policy domains relevant for flood risk management (including water management, spatial planning, and disaster management) as well as their dominant discourses, their formal and informal rules of the game, and the power and resource base of the actors involved (Hegger et al. 2014, see also Van Tatenhove et al. 2000, Arts et al. 2006).

Although it makes intuitive sense to see a causal link between the presence of a diverse range of FRMSs and the degree of flood resilience of an urban agglomeration, the empirical evidence base for the existence of this link is still tentative. Moreover, empirical data may also point us to the need to refine and nuance the diversification thesis. We aim to address this knowledge gap and intend to contribute to the literature on resilience of social-ecological systems and flood risk governance by confronting theoretical insights from this literature with empirical evidence. To achieve the research aim, the following research questions will be addressed:

  1. Which desired capacities for determining the resilience of vulnerable areas to flood risks can be derived from the literature on resilience of social-ecological systems and flood risk governance?
  2. To what extent can we observe the presence of a diversified portfolio of FRMSs, in terms of the implementation of measures belonging to different FRM strategies and/or the presence of FRGAs necessary to implement the strategies in Belgium, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden?
  3. What are the achievements of the aforementioned countries in terms of the desired capacities for flood resilience and what are similarities and differences?
  4. Which lessons can be derived from the previous analysis and evaluation for future flood policies on the EU and national levels?

Answering the question of “what should be made resilient to what” (Lebel et al. 2006) our unit of analysis will be the overarching national policies and approaches regarding FRM in six European countries. These countries are interesting because they are all Member States of the European Union that are currently implementing the EU Floods Directive (FD, 2007/60/EC) but differ tremendously from one another in terms of physical conditions, actual flood experience, their departure point in terms of the FRMSs and FRGAs that are in place, and their economic, social, administrative, and legal context, among other things (Hegger et al. 2013). Although there is spatial diversity within the countries, most of them can be said to have an overall national approach to FRM (In Sweden, FRM is however embedded in other policy areas; Hegger et al. 2013). By undertaking national level comparisons between countries that are diverse in their characteristics, we will be able to acquire detailed insights into the intricate link between the implementation of strategies and the degree of flood resilience at the national level.

Because resilience is a widely discussed and contested concept, we deem it undesirable to try to favor a single understanding of resilience over all others. Instead, we argue for a multidimensional evaluation, using three capacities: “capacity to resist,” “capacity to absorb and recover” and “capacity to transform and adapt,” which are representative of three major streams of thought in resilience and flood risk governance literature.


Three dominant perspectives on resilience

The use of the term resilience and the application of a resilience perspective both have a long history, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s when the perspective was developed within the field of ecology (e.g., Holling 1973, see Folke 2006 for an overview). The term's application to the analysis of social-ecological systems has occurred more recently (e.g. Olsson et al. 2004, Walker et al. 2004, Folke et al. 2005, Folke 2006, Lebel et al. 2006, Davoudi et al. 2012, Keessen et al. 2013, Wiering et al. 2015). As of now, the literature on resilience has expanded far beyond its initial focus on ecological systems and has filtered into discussions of social, institutional, economic, policy, and legal systems. Also the literature on flood risk management has adopted the resilience concept (e.g., Klijn et al. 2004, Wardekker et al. 2010, Mens et al. 2011, Hegger et al. 2014, Wiering et al. 2015). Although the resilience notion is conceptualized in many different ways, most contributions view resilience as a property of a system (Mens et al. 2011, Wiering et al. 2015). It is a difficult and perhaps fuzzy term, because it includes both stability (resistance to change) and change (adaptability) components (Reghezza-Zitt et al. 2012, Wiering et al. 2015).

The main distinctions made in literature are those between forms of (i) engineering, (ii) ecological, social-ecological, and (iii) evolutionary resilience (Fiering 1982a,b, Folke 2006, Davoudi et al. 2012).

  1. Engineering resilience emphasizes resistance of a system, as part of its stability, with a focus on the ability of a system to “resist and return” to some original (satisfactory) state (bounce back). This is related to notions of efficiency and control-over-nature typically adopted in resource and environmental management (Holling 1996).
  2. A second understanding of resilience is close to the first, but now smaller changes are needed to preserve the stability of the system on a larger temporal scale or on a higher level. This is resilience aimed at long-term persistence and robustness. Walker et al. (2004) refer to this notion of resilience by referring to “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks.” This notion has been adopted by the Resilience Alliance, that defines resilience as “the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation” ( The Resilience Alliance definition also includes a (gradual or step-wise) change of systems to secure long-term stability. As Folke et al. (2010) stress, the notions of adaptability and transformability are closely intertwined. “Transformational change at smaller scales enables resilience at larger scales” (Folke et al. 2010).
  3. A third understanding of resilience is even more focused on systems’ adaptability and transformability (Davoudi et al. 2012). The literature on adaptive governance reflects this third understanding. Chaffin et al. (2014), in their synthesis of literature on adaptive governance, hold that adaptive governance “is essential for dealing with complexity and uncertainty associated with rapid global environmental change.” Social-ecological systems should be managed “holistically for either increased resistance to undesirable change or the ability to transform a system to a more desirable state” (Chaffin et al. 2014). Adaptive governance is seen as a precondition for achieving adaptive management (Chaffin et al. 2014), which can be understood as the enabling of “a social-ecological system to sustain itself through learning-by-doing and cooperation and to avoid collapse, while enhancing a system's capacity to respond to changing circumstances” (Den Uyl and Driessen 2015:189, based on Walters and Holling 1990, Lee 1993, Berkes et al. 2003, Olsson et al. 2004, Armitage et al. 2008). This perspective sees adaptability and transformability as preconditions of resilient systems, and emphasizes change. This literature on adaptive governance often stresses that system resilience will benefit from a variety of pathways or strategies. Scholars stress diversity, polycentricity, and flexibility (e.g., Folke et al. 2005, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007, for a critical discussion see Bakker and Morinville 2013).

Translating the perspectives into desired capacities for resilience

The three main perspectives of resilience outlined above can be translated into corresponding desired capacities for evaluating the flood-resilience of vulnerable urban agglomerations: capacity to resist, capacity to absorb and recover, and capacity to transform and adapt (Alexander et al. 2016a).

Capacity to resist

Capacity to resist is seen as the ability to withstand disturbances (Klijn et al. 2004, Mens et al. 2011). This resonates with the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of resistance, being “the ability not to be affected by something, especially adversely.” It is often understood in the sense of increasing threshold capacity, being the magnitude of a disturbance, e.g., high river discharges, storm surges, or extreme precipitation events, needed to do harm (De Graaf et al. 2009). Resistance-like measures include dikes, dams, and embankments or water retention and can hence be linked conceptually to the timely and effective implementation of the strategies of flood defense and flood risk mitigation introduced above. The question of whether resistance measures are to be seen as an aspect of resilience is debated in literature. Proponents (e.g., Aerts et al. 2008, De Graaf et al. 2009) argue that they are inherently part of a balanced portfolio of FRM measures - reducing the need to have a capacity to absorb or adapt. Opponents (e.g., Holling and Meffe 1996, Liao 2012) hold that resistance is detrimental to urban areas’ capacity to absorb or adapt and leads to a false sense of safety. We do, however, accept resistance as an enhancing factor for resilience. Because it represents a significant part of the large body of literature on flood-proofing countries and regions, it would not be legitimate to a priori exclude it as a relevant part of the notion of flood resilience.

Capacity to absorb and recover

We understand the notion of “capacity to absorb and recover” as the extent to which flood-prone areas can absorb disturbances without shifting into a different, less satisfactory, state. Although resistance is about the possibility not to be negatively affected by a disturbance, the capacity to absorb and recover refers to situations where a system is affected, but is still capable of responding and recovering (Mens et al. 2011). This notion is similar to what some contributors to the flood risk governance debate have termed the “resilience” of flood risk systems (Klijn et al. 2004). This conceptualization is, however, narrower than that found in literature on the resilience of social-ecological systems (e.g. Folke 2006, Liao 2012). Capacity to absorb and recover links up with the notion of social-ecological resilience discussed above. It can also be linked, conceptually, to the timely and effective implementation of the strategies of flood preparation and flood recovery introduced in the introduction as well as more natural ways of flood defense (including giving rivers more room).

Capacity to transform and adapt

The adaptive capacity of social-ecological systems has been defined as “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes) to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences” (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2006, Glossary:599). For our research on flood risk governance, the assessment of adaptive capacity includes that of institutions and of communities (Davoudi et al. 2012). For dealing with flood risks, institutions should be prepared for dealing with several kinds of uncertainty and surprise, including external drivers (Folke et al. 2005). Besides that, these institutions need to initiate deliberate change to achieve the small scale transformations that allow the social-ecological system as a whole to remain stable in the long term (Folke et al. 2010). As several authors have argued, the capacity to learn—about how to address circumscribed problems as well as about ways in which problem definitions might need to be revisited (e.g., Lebel et al. 2006, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007)—is an inherent aspect of the capacity to transform and adapt (Folke et al. 2005, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007, Mostert et al. 2008, Raadgever et al. 2008). Learning has been found to be enhanced by participation and deliberation, as well as flexibility and more decentralized steering modes (Folke et al. 2005, Pahl-Wostl et al. 2007, Mostert et al. 2008, Raadgever et al. 2008). Although the capacities to resist and to absorb and recover can conceptually be linked to specific types of FRM strategies, it does not seem justified to draw a similar link for capacity to transform and adapt. Table 2 summarizes our conceptualization of the three capacities of flood resilience and presents preliminary indicators that may help in determining to what extent each capacity is present in a specific country, as well as an overview of the main sources consulted.

Balancing the desired capacities

Although the conceptual boundaries between the three capacities are not cast in stone, we argue that they represent different aspects and understandings of resilience, each with presumably different outcomes in terms of an eventual decrease of the number of floods, casualties, or amount of damage sustained. An empirical question concerns how the different desired capacities would relate to one another. Theoretically, one could argue that the desired outcome of more flood resilient countries is better reached in cases in which all three capacities are present in a country to a large extent. The question comes to the fore, however, of whether this is possible, because there could be potential trade-offs between the capacities, e.g., a high capacity to resist may limit the capacity to absorb and recover (Liao 2012). At the same time, capacity to transform and adapt may be a capacity in itself but also to some extent a precondition for both other capacities. This indicates the need for an explorative, interpretative analysis in which countries’ degree of implementation of FRM strategies (research question ii); their achievements in terms of whether or not, and to what extent, the three capacities are present (research question iii), and the overlaps and (potentially causal) links between the two are carefully considered.


The empirical material discussed in this paper has been collected in the framework of a research project funded by the European Commission called STAR-FLOOD ( Within this project, policy analysts and legal scholars in Belgium, England, France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden conducted empirical analyses and evaluations of flood risk governance in their country, both at the national level and at the level of three case studies focusing on specific urban areas that were used to illustrate and further explore developments at the national level. As part of this research, an explorative assessment was made of whether or not, and to what extent, the three capacities discussed in the previous section were present. Data collection methods applied in all countries are desk research (analysis of policy documents, legal texts, case law, literature); semistructured interviews (70 in Belgium, 61 in England, 64 in France, 45 in the Netherlands, 54 in Poland, and 19 in Sweden), and at least one workshop with stakeholders in each country (Alexander et al. 2016b, Ek et al. 2016, Kaufmann et al. 2016, Larrue et al. 2016, Matczak et al. 2016, Mees et al. 2016). The topics about which data were collected included factual information about the presence and relative importance of flood risk management strategies, their institutional embedding in flood risk governance arrangements, and actors’ information and opinions regarding various aspects of flood risk governance in their country. Next to this, there were many occasions on which the comparison of strategies, arrangements, and resilience capacities was discussed with all six country teams.

Because of this breadth of the paper’s empirical knowledge base and our ambition to provide an overview at a relatively high level of abstraction, it is necessary to present the findings in a condensed way. The next section on the degree to which the analyzed countries have managed to implement a diverse and aligned set of FRM strategies focuses on aggregated findings regarding the presence and relative importance of strategies. A detailed elaboration on how strategies have been institutionalized in countries and how this has developed over time is presented in six publicly available national project reports (Alexander et al. 2016b, Ek et al. 2016, Kaufmann et al. 2016, Larrue et al. 2016, Matczak et al. 2016, Mees et al. 2016).


Nature and extent of flood risks

All countries in the comparison are at risk of pluvial and fluvial flooding since 1950 (see also Driessen et al. 2016). Tidal flooding and flooding due to high waves has occurred only in Belgium, England and the Netherlands, whereas Sweden also knows flood risks due to snowmelt and ice plugs. Flash floods have occurred in England, France, Germany and Poland. All countries have a recent historical record of flooding, but as the figures on casualties and economic losses show, the impact of these floods was much more substantial for England, France and Poland as opposed to Belgium, the Netherlands and Sweden (for details, see Driessen et al. 2016, based on Barredo 2007, Kundzewicz 2012, Kundzewicz et al. 2013, 2017, Alfieri et al. 2015).

Table 3 shows the consequences of a potential 100-year flood as projected by Alfieri et al. (2015). Despite the limitations and uncertainties of using broad scale risk modeling for comparative purposes, these figures provide insight into the relative differences between countries. Considering the current level of flood protection, Alfieri et al.’s figures suggest that Belgium and the Netherlands are very safe while all other countries could suffer relatively large (UK, France, Sweden) to very large (Poland) consequences in terms of both casualties and losses. Comparing these figures with the expected consequences in the absence of flood protection may provide a crude indicator of the countries’ current reliance on flood defense measures. Table 3 shows that all countries are vulnerable in cases where flood defenses would fail, but while the difference between the figures with and without protection is relatively modest in Sweden, the difference is dramatic for the Netherlands with 17.5% of the population potentially affected and an estimated economic loss of 6.7% of GDP (see also:

Figures like these only provide a crude indicator of the intercountry differences. Moreover, they neglect that some countries have substantial intra-country differences while others seem to be more homogeneous in terms of flood risk. In England and to a lesser extent France, there is a large variation of type and severity of flood risks within the country (Alexander et al. 2016b, Larrue et al. 2016). Although the Netherlands knows intra-country differences in terms of, e.g., flood depths and the speed of onset of flooding, the country is much more homogeneous in that the magnitude of flooding if it occurs will be very high in general, while 59% of the country is susceptible to flooding and 26% of the land is situated below sea level (Kaufmann et al. 2016). In Sweden, on the other hand, flood risks are very local in nature, with some cities being highly susceptible, e.g., Gothenburg or Kristianstad, whereas other cities are not (Ek et al. 2016). In Poland, almost half of the municipalities are endangered. Urbanization and urban sprawl processes with increases in the amount of impermeable surface are expected to elevate the risk of flash floods (Matczak et al. 2016). A specific factor for Belgium is its comparatively very high degree of land sealing (Mees et al. 2016). It seems safe to assume that all countries will face a significant increase in flood risk due to climate change, although this has been less clearly identified in France and Poland as opposed to the other countries (Larrue et al. 2016, Matczak et al. 2016). In northern France, the impact of climate change on floods will be similar to the northern countries, whereas in the center and the south, the impact is less clear.

Comparison of the implementation and alignment of flood risk management strategies in six countries

All six countries addressed have, to different degrees, all five strategies in their flood risk policies, but their relative importance and manner of implementation differs. Appendix 1 discusses each of the six countries and the extent to which measures related to specific strategies have been implemented and linked together.

As the appendix shows, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and Poland have a predominant focus on flood defense with an emerging broadening toward other strategies (predominantly prevention and mitigation in Belgium, mitigation in the Netherlands, prevention in France, and preparation in Poland). England, at the other extreme, has a broad portfolio of strategies in place. Sweden has a very specific focus on local measures, among other things, because of the relatively low and highly dispersed flood risks in the country, the absence of national flood policies and the large degree to which responsibilities have been attributed to local governments.

All countries report “fragmentation” as one of the key features of FRM, although the countries differ in what is fragmented, why, and whether it is seen as a problem. For instance, in the Netherlands, there is fragmentation between water system management, spatial planning, and flood preparation. In Sweden flood policies are scattered over many societal domains and no discernible policy domain can be distinguished. In England fragmentation and many subdomains have emerged as flood risk governance has evolved in a piecemeal manner. In Belgium the fragmentation lies mainly in the administrative complexity of the country, with some responsibilities residing at the federal level, and some at the level of the regions (and within the regions there are many different water managers for different types of watercourses). Whereas in Poland there is large fragmentation between different institutions (and different sectors) responsible for the individual strategies, and a complex configuration of actors, while the rules of the game have been dramatically changing in the last 25 years, considerably more than in other countries studied. In France, several efforts at integration are undertaken by various governmental actors at the local level through PAPI (local flood action plans) and to some extent flood risk management plans.

Fragmentation is a logical consequence of a diversification of strategies and not inherently negative. However, the risk arises that strategies are insufficiently tailored toward one another and that a lack of coordination arises. For instance, disaster management may develop autonomously from water management/flood protection, or recovery mechanisms (compensation schemes/insurances) may be implemented while insufficiently taking into account whether or not they incentivize preventative measures. To overcome this fragmentation, bridging mechanisms are being developed in all researched countries, some being organizations, bridging concepts, policy instruments, financial instruments, or tools that facilitate integration between public and private actors, policy levels, and policy sectors.

Strategies’ desirability, necessity, and technical feasibility for different types of flood risks

The question arises about whether the implementation of all five strategies is needed, feasible, and desirable in all six countries. In all countries there is, to some extent, a logical connection between the nature and extent of flood risks and the strategies implemented. For instance, given that flood risks are highly diverse in England, the implementation of a balanced portfolio of strategies seems to be a logical response. On the other hand, large parts of the Netherlands would not been habitable in the absence of strong and reliable flood defenses, partly explaining a predominant focus on flood defense. It would, however, be too simple to assume a deterministic view in which certain types of risks prescribe or lead to certain responses in terms of strategies and measures. For one, we already see that even in countries with a dominant focus on flood defense like the Netherlands and Poland, a diversification of strategies has entered policy agendas and that concrete efforts are discernable. Second, choosing an appropriate response to flood risks will always involve normative choices of how much risk reduction should be achieved, at what cost, and whether risk should predominantly be reduced by focusing on reducing the probability or the consequences of flood risks. But presumably different normative choices will have different outcomes in terms of the degree and type of flood resilience achieved.


Capacity to resist

As is illustrated in Table 4, the nature and extent of the capacity to resist floods has been found to differ between the six countries. The Netherlands, Belgium, and France can be characterized by a dominant focus on defenses, whose functioning can be reported as effective. A similar dominance is present in Poland, but here the effectiveness of flood defenses is lacking; most flood damage during the disastrous 1997 and 2010 floods occurred in areas protected by dikes. In Sweden and England, there is a more holistic approach to FRM in which resistance measures are considered vis-à-vis other types of measures. Although defense was found to be dominant and effective both in the Netherlands and France, lack of maintenance has been reported, to some degree for the Netherlands and to a serious degree for France (Kaufmann et al. 2016, Larrue et al. 2016). In England, in many cases of high flood risk the capacity to resist is present, but flood defenses are usually considered as part of a portfolio of FRM strategies, ensuring a holistic approach to FRM (Alexander et al. 2016b). Similarly, Sweden deals flexibly with flood risks with examples of flood defense infrastructures in some municipalities, while temporary small-scale defenses are used in many situations. Sweden differs from the other evaluated countries in that flood risks are relatively low and highly dispersed, so the need to build resistance through flood defenses is dependent on the local situation and urgency (Ek et al. 2016).

Capacity to absorb and recover

The six countries vary in terms of their capacity to absorb and recover (Table 5). The Netherlands and Poland rely significantly on the defense strategy, thus resistance is the main focus. In the Netherlands, more natural ways of defense (“foreshores,” room for the rivers) have been developed, and mitigation and preparation measures complement the dominant defense strategy. These measures are receiving increasing attention in the Delta Program, a national program on flood management and fresh water supply based on the Water Act, through the multilayered safety approach. Measures to store water, both through upstream retention and urban drainage, are being implemented in France, the Netherlands, England, and especially in Belgium. Thus, in the latter country, an increase in the amount of sealed surface is being counterbalanced, whereas such development is barely counterbalanced in Poland. Although England has a sophisticated flood warning and crisis management system and Poland has made significant improvement in terms of this flood preparation, this strategy can be said to require further development in France. In the case of the Netherlands, the flood warning system also seems to work well; however, it is more difficult to assess because of limited recent hands-on experience with crisis management.

The capacity to recover requires resources to be employed after a disturbance. It comprises financial resources as well as material ones and institutional ability. The main systems are public disaster funds and insurance systems. Such systems are in place in all countries, although they are governed in different ways, e.g., through public or private mechanisms. In terms of available resources in relation to flood risk recovery, France is well established, whereas Poland and the Netherlands seem to be at risk.

Capacity to transform and adapt

Flood risk governance in the investigated countries differs in its capacity to transform and adapt. In all the countries we witnessed some changes in recent decades, indicating that all are transformative and adaptive to some extent. All the countries have stronger and weaker points though, as highlighted in Table 6. England seems to have more strengths compared to the other countries: with relatively well-developed flood awareness of citizens, a strong learning culture, and the presence of local resilience fora which enable flexible, tailor-made solutions. Hence, adaptive capacity in England can be ranked as high. The built-in flexibility also provides the English system with a relatively high transformability. Other countries show a more mixed view in terms of their strengths and weaknesses and hence their adaptive capacity can be assessed as moderate. Belgium, France, Sweden, and especially the Netherlands report a relatively low flood awareness of citizens, whereas flood awareness in Poland, because of catastrophic floods in 1997 and 2010, is relatively high. Established systems for learning are in place in the Netherlands, France, and to a lesser extent Belgium. Possibilities for applying local tailor-made solutions have been reported for France, the Netherlands, Poland, and Sweden. In Sweden and the Netherlands, established systems for risk analysis are in place; in the Netherlands the focus is on the maintenance of flood defences; and in Sweden focus is on multiple risks, including floods. The strengths of the Belgian and Polish system are that civil servants and others have been reported to adapt flexibly to quickly changing legal systems and political constellations. For Belgium, fragmentation of relevant expertise has been reported.

In Belgium and France, the moderate adaptive capacity is accompanied by a comparatively high transformability. Belgium has a relatively open governance system with many entry points for change. In France, the ongoing systemic decentralization process was also found to provide entry points for change. Sweden provides a more mixed picture in terms of transformability. Because there is no overall FRGA and flood policies are scattered across many domains, there are many opportunities at the local scale to initiate deliberate change, leading to some inherent flexibility, but there is also the risk of actors reinventing the wheel. Transformability in the Netherlands and Poland is comparatively low. In Poland, there was change (response strategy strengthened) but still a strong defense-orientated paradigm remained in place. Moreover, the change was not deliberate but it was a response to an external event. Although the Netherlands is a frontrunner in developing flood relevant knowledge, it is also a country that shows both a relative dominance of the actors related to flood defense and a relatively limited consideration of flood risks by some other actors, such as those related to spatial planning. The dominant actors have been shown to incorporate new discourses and developments, e.g., ecological turn in 1980s and room for the river in 1990s and beyond, without changing fundamentally, which may hamper transformability in the long term.



Our aim was to contribute to resilience and flood risk governance literature by scrutinizing the assumption that a diversification of FRM strategies is the way forward. Flood risk governance approaches in six countries were compared, and the countries’ flood resilience in terms of their capacity to resist, capacity to absorb and recover, and capacity to transform and adapt was evaluated.

Although England, from a national perspective, has the most diversified set of strategies in operation, other countries show a relative dominance of specific strategies. In France, we found a strong discursive emphasis on prevention that is keeping people away from water through proactive spatial planning, which seems to be at odds with its de facto emphasis on the implementation of flood defense works. There is a strong focus on defense in the Netherlands; on flood preparation in Sweden; on defense and mitigation in Belgium; and on defense and preparation in Poland. All countries report “fragmentation” as one of the key problems of FRM, although the countries differ in what is fragmented and why. For instance, in Belgium, Poland, and England, fragmentation is illustrated by institutional complexity and the presence of a diverse array of strategies, whereas, e.g., in the Netherlands, the fragmentation is related to the relative absence in FRM of flood-relevant policy domains other than water management (e.g., spatial planning and a weaker role in emergency management), a fragmentation that is only very slowly being overcome.

As we have shown, each country has specific strengths and weaknesses in terms of resilience. England is strong on all three capacities, but in particular on the capacity to transform and adapt. The Netherlands and to a lesser extent Belgium have a strong capacity to resist, and Belgium, England, and France a very high capacity to absorb and recover. In Poland the presence of all three capacities seems to be low to medium-high, while in Sweden it is medium to high in individual categories. In Poland progress has been made in capacity to transform and adapt, but more in terms of adapting (by establishing the crisis management system) than in terms of transforming (transformability of the system was shown to be very low). With some risk of oversimplification, it seems that the implementation of a more diverse portfolio of strategies contributes to a higher capacity to absorb and to adapt, obviously provided that the strategies have been implemented effectively.


The question comes to the fore of what this teaches us about the link between having a diversified and aligned set of strategies in place and resilience. This question cannot be answered in a straightforward way, but can be approached from at least two perspectives.

A first perspective, to which, e.g., Liao (2012) would probably agree, is that diversification of FRM strategies is indeed necessary to achieve resilience. Reliance only on flood defense and, seemingly associated, increasing capacity to resist is undesirable when taking into account current and potential future flood risks in times of urbanization and climate change (Holling and Meffe 1996, Kundzewicz and Takeuchi 1999, Liao 2012). An approach solely reliant on resistance may not be capable of adequately addressing these risks while at the same time there might be failure of the infrastructure or a flood above design standards. Seen from this perspective, a country like the Netherlands is taking a significant risk because the actual consequences of floods would be dramatic (high economic damage and many casualties). Although part of the risk taken is the result of choices made in the past combined with inescapable physical circumstances, we have also found that, for example, in current planning decisions, flood risk prevention has a relatively low priority (Hegger et al. 2014). Put in other words, perfect, absolute, flood resistance is not possible. A system may withstand load, but not without limits. According to a statistical design concept, defenses should withstand a design flood, e.g., 100-year flood, but be ineffective if the actual flood is much higher. Therefore, at least from the first perspective, a more disaster-conscious society needs to be built. The dominating stance should be to seek safe-fail (safe in failure) in addition to unrealistic fail-safe (safe from failure) solutions, (cf. Kundzewicz and Takeuchi 1999).

From a second perspective, which is a potential criticism on the first perspective, diversification does not (necessarily) increase resilience. After all, a retrospective evaluation shows that countries that have more strategies in place and seem to have a high capacity to absorb and recover like England are not the countries with the fewest floods, damages, or casualties. One could even argue that a resilience approach does not explicitly aim to avoid these. The example of England shows that having in place a highly diversified set of FRMSs is in itself not enough to prevent casualties and losses from happening (cf. floods in autumn 2000, summer 2007, and winters 2013/2014, and 2015/2016). In this country, there still seems to be room for improvement in terms of further risk reduction, although this criticism should be viewed in the light of normative viewpoints held in England, in which it has been accepted that not all floods can be prevented while it is intended to resist other (life-threatening) floods. England is considered more resilient to flooding by having this diversification.

The two opposing perspectives on resilience makes it necessary for us to nuance our starting assumption that diversification leads to more resilience. The three capacities imply different rationales and normative starting points for flood risk governance, the choice between which is largely political. As we have shown, there is no one-to-one relationship between the nature and extent of flood risks, the strategies implemented to deal with these risks, and the resulting achievements in terms of resilience. Second, we found trade-offs between the three capacities, e.g., being resistant seems to lower the possibility to be absorbent. Third, to explain countries’ achievements in terms of resilience, the strategies’ feasibility in specific physical circumstances and their fit in existing institutional contexts (appropriateness) needs to be taken into account. Bridging mechanisms may be an important way to establish links between strategies.


If, as argued above, it is too simple to view diversification of FRM strategies as a panacea for improving flood resilience, what would this imply for practical action? Diversification can be thought to be generally advisable, but it should be implemented in a country-specific way. For instance, in the Netherlands, it currently means the establishment of back-up strategies; and in England, it denotes further tailoring of the existing, already balanced, portfolio of strategies. Sometimes physical/geographical circumstances make some strategies unfeasible, e.g., building flood-proof houses in a deep polder. A distinction should be made between strategies that a country must have and strategies that are nice to have. This distinction to some extent involves normative (political) choices regarding acceptable levels of risks, how these should be dealt with, and by whom (see also Lebel et al. 2006).

In countries with a dominant focus on flood defense, like the Netherlands, Poland, France, and Belgium, the presence of effective flood defense infrastructure is a necessity (must have) and other strategies could be viewed as add-on strategies to reduce residual risks (nice to have) although it should be assessed what the consequences of failure of flood defences would be. In the Netherlands, emergency management would probably do a better job than flood recovery. A country like England with more of a balanced approach to strategies would experience more floods, but through the selected approach would perform better than the Netherlands in response and recovery. For England it is necessary to also have effective bridging mechanisms between the strategies. The dominance of the structural defense system in Poland is nonabated. However, other flood risk reduction strategies are on the rise. In France, the recovery system will not be sufficient in case of major floods (for instance in the Paris region) and it might hamper more preventive or mitigation action. That challenges the elaboration of a more adaptive strategy. The well-developed recovery system in France (and to a lesser extent Belgium), might theoretically contribute to the perverse effect that there is less need to bring prevention and mitigation further.

We hope that this paper has pointed out useful directions for further searches by scholars and practitioners toward more flood resilience. Our comparison undoubtedly shows that there is no single pathway to a universal resilience, even if it is considered in the broadest sense of the word. Flood resilience cannot be conceived of without a sense of institutional and territorial appropriateness.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.


This paper has been written in the framework of the European Union’s Seventh Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration within the STAR-FLOOD project. This research has received funding from the European Commission under grant agreement no. 308364. We would also like to thank all researchers within the project and all who participated otherwise for contributing to the material upon which this paper is based. We furthermore thank Tina Newstead for her language corrections.


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Address of Correspondent:
Dries L. T. Hegger
PO Box 80115
3508 TC
Utrecht, Gelderland
3508 TC
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