Netherlands Battens Its Ramparts Against Warming Climate

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A decade ago, Dutch authorities started studying their options for dealing with not only sinking land, but rising seas, more powerful storms, and ever larger floods. Government engineers considered several strategies, including a plan to simply surrender large parts of the country to the sea. The most cost-effective plan was selected: strengthen the existing defenses and pumping stations, at a cost of $19 billion to $25 billion.

"These are enormous figures if you had to spend them all at once, but we're able to spread it out over 50 to 100 years," says John de Ronde of the National Institute for Coastal and Marine Management in The Hague, which prepared the estimates. "And it's relatively simple for us to cope with sea-level rise because we already have [U.S. $2.5 trillion worth of] existing infrastructure."

"If you really have to start from scratch and build all of this infrastructure, you'd probably have to consider giving the land to the sea," he says. It's a situation low-lying regions from Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands to southern Louisiana and the Florida Everglades may soon be facing.

The Dutch also plan to surrender hard-fought land to the water—not to the sea but to the Rhine and Meuse rivers, which end in the Netherlands after draining much of the land between here and the Alps. They call the plan "making room for water."

"Giving Up" Land

Naturally flowing rivers spread over vast floodplains every spring, leaving behind the organic material that makes these areas so fertile. As in many parts of the world, the Dutch wanted to farm and settle in those flood-prone areas. So the rivers were imprisoned between artificial levees.

But when a particularly large flood came, the surging rivers sometimes breached the levees, crashing through towns like a tidal wave. Larger levees were built, which, when breached by an even larger flood or a winter ice jam, caused ever greater disasters. Since global warming is expected to increase precipitation in the Rhine Valley, levees would have to be raised even higher.

"There are floodplains that are inhabited that should not be," says Jeroen van der Sommen, managing director of the Delft-based Netherlands Water Partnership. "We have to change our thinking and say, 'If you don't want to get your feet wet, you need to get out!'"

The new strategy will give the rivers more room, allowing them to flood more naturally, rather than trying to force them into artificial channels. By 2050, 222,000 acres (90,000 hectares) of land will be surrendered to increase the size of the river floodplains, which will be allowed to turn into natural forests and marshland.

Another 62,000 acres (25,000 hectares) of pasture will be earmarked as huge temporary storage pools for floodwaters. Land use practices on another 185,000 acres (75,000 hectares) of farmland will be changed so they can tolerate soggy conditions in winter and spring.

In the densely populated Netherlands, sacrificing land won't be easy. One company is designing giant floating farms, commercial parks, and towns that could be stationed in flood-storage areas. Some towns and villages will be told they can't build new infrastructure, because their surroundings will be given back to the rivers in the coming decades.

Copyright 2001 The Christian Science Monitor

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