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.
Simply building ever higher dikes is not the solution, he said, instead Dutch authorities are looking at reversing centuries of tradition by deliberately weakening levees to recreate natural flood plains for the rivers.
“There’s a big campaign, called ‘Give the River its Space’ meaning that we now realize that it's safer to create space where the river can overflow in a natural way, than to have dams and dikes everywhere,” said Lies Janssen, a senior expert at the Netherlands Water Partnership, which coordinates private and public sector water management efforts.
Along the coast there are plans to strengthen barrages like the 20-mile Afsluitdijk causeway by developing a buffer zone of artificial reefs and marsh land between the dams and the open sea that will break the power of incoming waves.
Plans are under consideration to create lakes, waterways and natural wetlands that would help divert and store surplus water. There’s work to build floating homes and houses on stilts. Such projects born of the necessity of coping with climate change can have a positive impact on the environment and standard of living, say supporters.
“If you allow water to be a more integrated part of society, and you do it well, you end up with a better living environment, meaning more pleasant, more beautiful, more healthy and more safe,” Hafkenscheid said.
“If you design a new residential area just behind a concrete wall and the river is on the other side and the dry land is on this side, it’s not very attractive. If you design it in such away that you have waterways flowing nearby, if every single house can have a jetty for a small boat, if roads are designed in such a way, that if the land is inundated, the actual effects are not so huge, you can create a very attractive landscape.”
Despite such optimism, the expert said it will be necessary sooner or later to face up to the fact that some flooding will be inevitable as the water levels rise. The test will be managing the impact to ensure there’s no repeat of the great North Sea flood of February 1953, which left almost 2,000 dead in the Netherlands.
“We cannot guarantee this full 100 percent failure-proof defense in all areas,” Hafkenscheid admitted. “It’s inevitable, not everywhere, but in someplace, so you need to increase the resilience of the environment and the people living there.”
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