A Sinking City: The Rotterdam Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 

Many cities across the globe are establishing plans to combat climate change, especially those vulnerable to rising water levels or drought. Rotterdam, a coastal city in the Netherlands, released its climate initiative in 2006 with a goal of becoming “climate-proof” by 2025. With the new year right around the corner, the city seems to be on track. 

Rotterdam sits on a delta, at the intersection of the Rhine and the Meuse rivers. The Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway) further exposes the city with a link to The North Sea. The city gets on average 30.8 inches of rainfall each year, with heavier levels in the second half of the year. This heavy precipitation is amplified by oversaturated land as groundwater becomes a problem for drainage systems in the city. Though Rotterdam is situated at sea level, 17% of the Netherlands falls below, and much of these lowlands are located close to the city. The four dimensions of water, coming from the sea, the sky, the rivers, and the ground make Rotterdam especially susceptible to flooding. When any changes in water levels occur, including drought, the water quality and levels change, it creates operational issues for the city. These have been minor so far, but the concern of continued climate change leaves the future uncertain for Rotterdam residents. 

The Rotterdam Climate Change Adaptation Strategy was established in 2013 by the City of Rotterdam as a means to protect the infrastructure and the citizens from environmental damage. The Adaptation Strategy sets six primary objectives that support an overarching goal “to create a climate proof city for the people of Rotterdam now and for future generations.” The objectives are as follows: protection from the rivers and the sea, minimal disruption from too much or too little rainfall, keeping the Port of Rotterdam safe and accessible, educating inhabitants of Rotterdam about the effects of climate change and what steps they can take, fostering a pleasant and attractive city in which to live and work, and strengthening the economy and image of the city through climate change adaptation. 

Rotterdam’s plan is divided into distinct levels to ensure the project remains manageable and creates fundamental protection. The innermost level is a robust system. The basic and practical components that the city already has in place are to be maintained and optimized. These components include the Maeslant storm surge barrier, the existing water infrastructure, and the reinforcement of specific urban development to align with the strategic decisions for adaptation. 

A more encompassing approach is taken with the level of building design and construction in terms of water storage and drainage. Goal-focused development, especially in the outer area of the city most susceptible to flooding, can improve the quality of the environment and provide more flexibility for solutions to potential damage.

The plan’s third level is focused on collaborating with other projects around the city. This intersectional approach provides information and clear directives for citizens and businesses in the area. The goal is to instill a joint responsibility between public and private property owners for the collection of rainfall that will cause disruption or damage.

Finally, the outermost level of Rotterdam’s implementation plan is to create added value for the city and its people. Environment, ecology, society, and economy are central to this part of the plan. The ultimate focus is to stimulate innovation around climate change adaptation and to ensure that all aspects of prevention and development are beneficial and effective for decades to come. 

Recent contributions to the climate adaptation strategy have been largely centered around rainwater and sewage in the city. In times of heavy rainfall, flooding mitigation systems that are in place become overfilled. Sewers overflow and cause major flooding in the streets. Private property owners’ responsibility for their own rainwater has become a focal point for policymakers. Rotterdam’s current legislation allows private property owners to drain collected  rainwater to the sewers, thus storing it locally, and then attempting to drain it to local surface water, like rivers or local canals and lakes. This final step can often be overlooked or easily ignored. Policymakers are looking toward models implemented by Germany and Belgium, where private property owners are required to retain their own rainwater and are prohibited from sending the water to sewers. Whether or not Rotterdam implements a measure like this, the city is looking towards improvements to the current water systems to address flooding problems in both public and private spaces. A renovation of the current sewer system would cost 40 million euros, and government officials are working on investments and funding. 

Rotterdam provides a model for coastal cities and towns across the globe for taking initiative and investing time, energy, and money into protecting the future. The current issues with flooding serve as a wake-up call. Climate change has real and tangible impacts on developed and established cities. It is important to work on establishing adaptation strategies to ensure safety for the residents of Rotterdam and vulnerable cities across the world. 


City of Rotterdam. (2013). Rotterdam Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (Rep.). Rotterdam: Rotterdam Climate Initiative. doi:

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Rotterdam Climate. (n.d.). Retrieved October 29, 2020, from

Visser, M. (2017). Public-private collaboration in climate adaptation to rainproof Rotterdam (Rep.). Rotterdam, Netherlands: IHS.