The medieval Dutch solution to flooding

 In a world of more frequent and more intense flooding, one way to protect against the worst can trace its roots back to the Netherlands, nearly 1,000 years ago.

This July, gorged by days of rain, the Meuse River broke its banks, and the Belgian town of Liège was its victim. Waters the colour of old gravy raced through town, leaving residents floating in canoes as their homes vanished about them. In the city and its province, over 20 died, one man drowning in his basement.

Nor was this corner of Eastern Belgium alone. In nearby Germany, around 200 perished, with journalists describing the flooding as a once-in-a-century event. The financial impact of the disaster was shocking too. Near Liège, a single chocolate factory sustained damages worth around €12m (£10m/$13.5m).

Yet as the mayhem unfolded, one corner of Northern Europe suffered far less. In the Netherlands, the summer flooding was also described as the worst in a century and property damage was severe, but the country survived the floods without a single fatality. There are many reasons for this: quick evacuations, strong dikes and robust communication among them. But what underpins these varied forms of flood defence is an institution: the so-called "water boards" that have protected this waterlogged land for nearly a millennium. 

These associations are worth understanding for the way they blend local democracy, direct taxation and crystal-clear transparency to put water at the very core of Dutch life. And the Netherlands is not alone. From the Ethiopian uplands to the communities along the Danube, water managers the world over have borrowed aspects of the Dutch model for their own needs, improving life for thousands along the way. They may soon be joined by other regions, as countries the world over face up to the rise in inundation and floods that come with climate change.