Water is one of our most essential resources, but it can also pose a deadly threat. The Netherlands is a classic example of a place where water can prove both beneficial and hazardous to people. Built mostly below sea level, the country is dependent on a series of dikes and other man-made defenses, as well as natural dunes, that keep water from the North Sea and the country’s three major rivers (the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt) at bay. Currently, the network of defenses is designed to protect the coast against a 10,000-year flood – that is, a flood that has a one in 10,000 chance of breaching the country’s weakest barriers within any single year. Yet global warming is increasing the odds of a breach that could lead to a flooding disaster.
In 1953, flooding in the Netherlands broke through dikes in the south of the country, killing over 1,800 people as well as tens of thousands of animals. The Dutch fought back, however, refusing to abandon their land. They planned an enormous system of dams and dikes working alongside canals, sluices, locks, pumps and storm surge barriers. Known as the Delta Works, the project needed to be designed not only to keep out the water, but also to do so in a way that didn’t disrupt the local saltwater ecology or harm the livelihoods of the fishermen who depended on it. To achieve this, the storm barrier across the Oosterschelde estuary was engineered to not allow seawater in unless the sea level was predicted to rise by at least three meters.
This project also shortened the coastline and reduced the number of dikes that would need to be raised. The Delta Works took 30 years to build and is considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
As a result of this engineering feat, the Netherlands has one of the world’s best-protected coastlines when it comes to flooding. Despite this, however, the Dutch people are still at risk – and it’s not a risk they’re prepared to accept lying down. Should the natural dunes that protect Rotterdam be breached, thousands of square miles would be flooded and the country’s economy crippled. Moreover, the lives of the two million people who live in the area would be under threat.
With this in mind, the Dutch government is willing to spend money – up to 1 billion Euros every year from 2020 – to ensure that its land and people are protected. A team of experts called the Delta Committee has proposed a set of measures that will effectively “climate-proof” the country. As well as strengthening the levees, other steps to be taken include constructing storm surge barriers and even extending the coastline (of which more below).
Yet, to control any future threat of flooding, the Dutch are actually exploring several options (not just those proposed by the Delta Committee). The North Sea is not the only danger to the Netherlands: as suggested, the population also faces the potential of flooding from at least two of the major rivers that run through the country, the Meuse and the Rhine. Currently, the country’s rivers are diked to withstand a 1,250-year flood in South Holland and a 250-year flood in other areas. But now the Dutch have actually decided to lower the dikes to allow controlled flooding in certain areas. By turning farmland back into floodplains, dikes in the cities downriver will be under less strain. This will require the relocation of farmers and the expansion of rivers and canals. Still, these are seen as moves worth making as they will enable the country to contain the worst conceivable flooding.
As mentioned, as part of the Delta Committee’s proposals, the Dutch are also considering expanding their coastline, using a massive land reclamation program. Sand dredged from the bottom of the North Sea is to be sprayed towards the shoreline, and the beach, assisted by wave action, should then advance further away from the coast. If the Dutch undertake this project, around 400 square miles would be added to the Netherlands.
A large percentage of the world’s 7 billion people live on coastlines that are vulnerable to the effects of global warming – not least, flooding and related problems. Many coastal communities have experienced high-profile catastrophes in recent years. These disasters include the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, which killed hundreds of thousands of people across countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand; the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which took out several of Japan’s nuclear reactors; and Hurricane Katrina, which flooded and severely damaged much of New Orleans. Global warming and the world’s growing population – much of which lives near the coast – is making this threat even more serious. By being proactive, the Netherlands is ensuring the safety of its people – and that can only be money well spent.