The Dutch Have Solutions to Rising Seas. The World Is Watching.
By Michael Kimmelman, NY Times, June 15, 2017
ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands–The wind over the canal stirred up whitecaps and rattled cafe umbrellas. Rowers strained toward a finish line and spectators hugged the shore. Henk Ovink, hawkish, wiry, head shaved, watched from a V.I.P. deck, one eye on the boats, the other, as usual, on his phone.
Mr. Ovink is the country’s globe-trotting salesman in chief for Dutch expertise on rising water and climate change. Like cheese in France or cars in Germany, climate change is a business in the Netherlands. Month in, month out, delegations from as far away as Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, New York and New Orleans make the rounds in the port city of Rotterdam. They often end up hiring Dutch firms, which dominate the global market in high-tech engineering and water management.
That’s because from the first moment settlers in this small nation started pumping water to clear land for farms and houses, water has been the central, existential fact of life in the Netherlands, a daily matter of survival and national identity. No place in Europe is under greater threat than this waterlogged country on the edge of the Continent. The nation sits largely below sea level and is gradually sinking. Now climate change brings the prospect of rising tides and fiercer storms.
From a Dutch mind-set, climate change is not a hypothetical or a drag on the economy, but an opportunity. While the Trump administration withdraws from the Paris accord, the Dutch are pioneering a singular way forward.
It is, in essence, to let water in, where possible, not hope to subdue Mother Nature: to live with the water, rather than struggle to defeat it. The Dutch devise lakes, garages, parks and plazas that are a boon to daily life but also double as enormous reservoirs for when the seas and rivers spill over. You may wish to pretend that rising seas are a hoax perpetrated by scientists and a gullible news media. Or you can build barriers galore. But in the end, neither will provide adequate defense, the Dutch say.
And what holds true for managing climate change applies to the social fabric, too. Environmental and social resilience should go hand in hand, officials here believe, improving neighborhoods, spreading equity and taming water during catastrophes. Climate adaptation, if addressed head-on and properly, ought to yield a stronger, richer state.
This is the message the Dutch have been taking out into the world. Dutch consultants advising the Bangladeshi authorities about emergency shelters and evacuation routes recently helped reduce the numbers of deaths suffered in recent floods to “hundreds instead of thousands,” according to Mr. Ovink.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “You can say we are marketing our expertise, but thousands of people die every year because of rising water, and the world is failing collectively to deal with the crisis, losing money and lives.” He ticks off the latest findings: 2016 was the warmest year on record; global sea levels rose to new highs.
He proudly shows off the new rowing course just outside Rotterdam, where the World Rowing Championships were staged last summer. The course forms part of an area called the Eendragtspolder, a 22-acre patchwork of reclaimed fields and canals–a prime example of a site built as a public amenity that collects floodwater in emergencies. It is near the lowest point in the Netherlands, about 20 feet below sea level. With its bike paths and water sports, the Eendragtspolder has become a popular retreat. Now it also serves as a reservoir for the Rotte River Basin when the nearby Rhine overflows, which, because of climate change, it’s expected to do every decade.
The project is among dozens in a nationwide program, years in the making, called Room for the River, which overturned centuries-old strategies of seizing territory from rivers and canals to build dams and dikes. The Netherlands effectively occupies the gutter of Europe, a lowlands bounded on one end by the North Sea, into which immense rivers like the Rhine and the Meuse flow from Germany and France. Dutch thinking changed after floods forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate during the 1990s. The floods “were a wake-up call to give back to the rivers some of the room we had taken,” as Harold van Waveren, a senior government adviser, recently explained.
“We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” he said. “We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps and public spaces.”
Mr. van Waveren was talking about a national GPS-guided app created so that residents always know exactly how far below sea level they are. To use public pools unrestricted, Dutch children must first earn diplomas that require swimming in their clothes and shoes. “It’s a basic part of our culture, like riding a bike,” Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect, told me.
In the Netherlands, scholarly articles about changes to the Arctic ice cap make front-page headlines. Long before climate change deniers began to campaign against science in the United States, Dutch engineers were preparing for apocalyptic, once-every-10,000-years storms. “For us, climate change is beyond ideology,” said Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb. He took me one morning around new waterfront development in a formerly poor, industrial neighborhood, to show how urban renewal dovetails with strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“If there is a shooting in a bar, I am asked a million questions,” Mr. Aboutaleb said of his city. “But if I say everyone should own a boat because we predict a tremendous increase in the intensity of rain, nobody questions the politics. Rotterdam lies in the most vulnerable part of the Netherlands, both economically and geographically. If the water comes in, from the rivers or the sea, we can evacuate maybe 15 out of 100 people. So evacuation isn’t an option. We can escape only into high buildings. We have no choice. We must learn to live with water.”
Rotterdam is clearly trying to cast itself as a model of inventive urbanism. A local businessman, Peter van Wingerden, envisions floating dairy farms along the waterfront. One in every three trucks coming into the city carries food, he said. Floating farms would reduce truck traffic and carbon emissions, supplying the city with its own milk. With the city’s encouragement, he is constructing a $2.2 million prototype, for 40 cows, producing a half-million liters (about 130,000 gallons) of milk a year. “The river is no longer just for industry,” he told me. “We need to find new uses, which keep us safe from climate change, and help the city grow and prosper.”
That’s the city’s mantra. When I asked Mr. van Wingerden if it was unsettling to live in a waterfront city mostly below sea level, he said: “It seems to us less dangerous than living on the San Andreas Fault. At least when we flood, we’ll have some warning before our feet get wet.”
To the Dutch, what’s truly incomprehensible, he added, is New York after Hurricane Sandy, where too little has been done to prepare for the next disaster. People in the Netherlands believe that the places with the most people and the most to lose economically should get the most protection.
The idea that a global economic hub like Lower Manhattan flooded during Hurricane Sandy, costing the public billions of dollars, yet still has so few protections, leaves climate experts here dumbfounded.
Mr. Molenaar, Rotterdam’s climate chief, summed up the Dutch view: “We have been able to put climate change adaptation high on the public agenda without suffering a disaster in many years because we have shown the benefits of improving public space–the added economic value of investing in resilience.
“It’s in our genes,” he said. “Water managers were the first rulers of the land. Designing the city to deal with water was the first task of survival here and it remains our defining job. It’s a process, a movement.
“It is not just a bunch of dikes and dams, but a way of life.”