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