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The Dutch plan to combat rising seas

With 60 percent of its land below sea level, climate change is a survival question for The Netherlands.

KINDERDIJK, The Netherlands — For almost three centuries, the line of 19 windmills towering over the flat polder — lands that have been reclaimed from the sea — east of Rotterdam have symbolized the age-old Dutch fight against flooding.

Now the 21st century is posing a new threat to the mills of Kinderdijk and the rest of the Netherlands. Experts are warning that rising sea levels caused by global warming could overwhelm the complex system of ancient dikes and state-of-the-art barriers protecting a nation with 60 percent of its territory below sea level.

“There is an extreme urgency to do something, because otherwise we lose half of our county,” warned Raimond Hafkenscheid, program director at the Cooperative Program on Water and Climate in The Hague.

“Right now the Dutch have never been safer, but if we don’t do anything we won’t be in 50 or 100 years,” he warned.

Dutch scientists predict that global warming threatens to raise sea levels by up to 1.3 meters (more than 4 feet) over the next century. That alone poses a serious danger to a nation where more than half the population and 65 percent of the economic output come from areas already below sea level.

“We cannot withdraw. We are just as vulnerable as Kiribati or the Seychelles or the Maldives,” Hafkenscheid told GlobalPost. “If you have an enormous hinterland which is 80 percent of your nation’s surface area, at least you can withdraw. We cannot.”

Rising seawater is not the only climate-related danger confronting the Dutch. The country is dissected by tributaries of some of Europe’s mightiest rivers — the Rhine, Meuse and Schelde — which split up to create an enormous delta region as they pour through the Dutch lowlands on their way to the North Sea. More rapid snow melt and increased winter rainfall mean the Dutch are more exposed to river flooding.

“The water is rising 5 mm per year and the polder is sinking lower, it’s a real problem. The houses built on the dike are beginning to lean,” said Meine Mollema, as he worked to restore a 19th-century windmill on the rim of a levee holding back the waters of the Lek, a broad branch of the Rhine, near Kinderdijk.

Experts predict rising levels of salt water in the land could compound the problem, triggering fresh water shortages in the summer months and hurting agriculture.

Faced with such a grim scenario, Hafkenscheid appears surprisingly upbeat, suggesting the “doom” can be turned to “bloom” through an innovative approach to the problem.