Netherlands Battens Its Ramparts Against Warming Climate

By Colin Woodard
Christian Science Monitor

September 4, 2001

Petten in the Netherlands is a seaside village, but not one of its tidy homes, hotels, or restaurants has a view of the sea.

You can hear the seabirds and feel the cool North Sea wind, but the sea itself is hidden behind a massive seawall, a long artificial hill 42 feet (13 meters) high and perhaps 50 yards (46 meters) thick at its base. Only by climbing the stairs to the top can you see the surf crashing against reinforced stone and concrete and appreciate how low-lying and vulnerable Petten really is.

Dutch authorities have raised the height of the Pettener seawall several times since 1976, when it stood only half as tall, trying to keep ahead of storms and coastal erosion. But it may not be tall enough yet.

With half of its territory below sea level—and much of the rest threatened by coastal or river flooding—the Netherlands is taking climate change very seriously.

Global warming is expected to cause the seas to rise by somewhere between four inches (ten centimeters) and three feet (one meter) during this century, while increased rainfall may enhance the flood risk for low-lying towns and cities behind the Dutch sea defenses.

Unlike the United States and many other countries, there is no debate in the Netherlands over the need to take action to ensure that the country is prepared for the possible effects of rising seas, increased storms, and surging rivers.

The Dutch expect to invest an extra U.S. $10 billion to $25 billion in flood and sea defenses over the next century, and are already drafting plans to upgrade dikes, pumping stations, and seawalls.

"It's better to be safe than sorry when you live below sea level," says Peter C. G. Glas, director of inland water systems at Delft Hydraulics, which designs much of the country's extensive water management infrastructure. "We've had a tradition over the past century of being frightened of the water, and rightly so."

Long-Time Problem

When it comes to water management and flood protection, probably no country in the world has as much experience as the Netherlands. The Dutch have been fighting the North Sea and the Rhine and Meuse Rivers for millennia, ever since Roman-era farmers began draining marshland to plant crops.

Unfortunately, drained land tends to settle and sink with the water table, and the Dutch were soon surrounding fields and towns with dikes and canals and using windmills to keep them pumped dry. The land has continued to sink, and much of it is below sea level. But the Netherlands has had the wealth and technology to continue building ever larger dikes, pumping stations, and seawalls.

During the last century, the Dutch sealed off the entire Zuider Sea with a huge dam that turned it into the huge freshwater Lake IJssel. Entirely new provinces were created by reclaiming parts of the sea floor with more dikes, pumps, and canals. Huge levees were built to tame the Rhine and Meuse, and enormous storm surge gates have been built at their mouths.

But as the water defenses have grown ever larger, so too have the consequences of their failure. In 1953 a storm surge smashed through the sea defenses in southern Holland and nearly 2,000 people drowned. A 1995 river flood forced the evacuation of 200,000 people and millions of animals from endangered areas. Much of the countryside would drown in the continuous rain if pumping stations didn't lift the water up, over the seawalls, and into the North Sea.

Continued on Next Page >>



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