In densely populated low-lying areas floods have always been a major concern. In the Middle Ages in the Netherlands, Water Boards were founded, primarily for flood control. Modern organisation of water management has been developed from these roots. Recent floods in Europe and expected climate change have brought the flooding issue more prominent on the Agenda. Two important insights have been grown and recognised in the last decade:

spatial planning rather than traditional dike enforcement offers sustainable solutions to the flooding problem;

flood management should be carried out on a river basin scale.

Water management on a river basin scale has been formulated as one of the kernels of the European Water Framework Directive. This WFD forms the actual focal point of far-reaching on-going re-organisation of water management all over Europe. The acknowledgement of the importance of spatial planning in relation to flood management has been the core of the EU-programme IRMA (International Rhine Meuse Action Programme), which was implemented in the period 1988–2002.

This paper highlights the role of the IRMA programme in the development and implementation of concepts for flood management in Western Europe. Whereas IRMA had all its activities in the river basins of Rhine and Meuse, the results of the programme and the lessons learned are expected to have an impact on flood management initiatives in other basins within Europe.