Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

What the Netherlands has done - and is urgently planning to do - in the face of climate-driven sea-level rise holds important lessons for the rest of the world.

By Peter N. Spotts| Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the November 15, 2007 edition

Dordrecht, Netherlands - The Dutch enjoy a hard-earned reputation for building river dikes and sea barriers. Over centuries, they have transformed a flood-prone river delta into a wealthy nation roughly twice the size of New Jersey.

If scientific projections for global warming are right, however, that success will be sorely tested. Globally, sea levels may rise up to a foot during the early part of this century, and up to nearly three feet by century's end. This would bring higher tidal surges from the more-intense coastal storms that scientists also project, along with the risk of more frequent and more severe river floods from intense rainfall inland.

Nowhere does this aquatic vise squeeze more tightly than on the world's densely populated river deltas.


The work here represent a keystone in the country's ­climate-adaptation plans, Mr. van Winden says. Indeed, nowhere are adaptation planning efforts to address rising sea levels and flooding more advanced than in the Netherlands.

To be sure, the country's economic wealth and long experience dealing with threats from seas and rivers give it an advantage over other low countries that face rising waters, such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and the tiny tropical island nation of Tuvalu in the South Pacific. But many of the approaches the Netherlands is taking can and are being slowly adopted even in countries far poorer, specialists say.

The excavation work here is one example of what van Winden calls "soft approaches" to flooding in this small nation where competing interests jostle for every square foot of land. By buying out the few farmers remaining in this region, breaching the dikes they built to protect their land, and digging additional water channels, the Dutch government aims to reduce peak flood flows at Dordrecht and other cities downstream. No longer will tightly constricted river and canal channels hold high water captive. Big floods will overspread the Biesbosch, reducing the threat of water spilling over the top of levees that guard densely populated cities to the west.


Zuidplaspolder is a case in point. As the lowest real estate in one of the Netherlands' most vulnerable provinces, it has become a test bed for factoring water and climate change into zoning and development plans. In the next 20 years, 15,000 to 30,000 new housing units will be built here. Anticipating this growth, in 2004, officials from provincial and local governments joined with nongovernmental organizations to develop a master plan for the polder. (A polder is a large tract of land containing farms and villages encircled by dikes. The dikes offer flood protection, but they also turn the polders into enormous bathtubs with bottoms that slowly, inexorably sink.)

The new homes that rise in the polder may look nothing like those in the villages the Dutch are used to, Mr. Bloemen says. To deal with floods, homes on this higher ground could be designed to float in place or built on stilts. They may sport tall ground floors, with living space and utilities placed on higher floors. Entire villages might be built to float in place, linked by buoyant sidewalks and roads.

In addition, he adds, officials may ask developers to use a technique that dates back centuries: building houses, even whole villages, on mounds. That low-tech approach is appearing in other parts of the world, too. Oxfam International is working with villages in Bangladesh to build individual homes and even small villages on flood-resistant mounds.