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Opinion

Dutch making room for water

Frances Stead Sellers Washington Post

The future of New Orleans will depend on its ability to keep its citizens’ heads above water. On the other side of the Atlantic, the same applies to the future of not just a city but a whole country: the Netherlands, where more than 60 percent of the population lives below sea level.

After their dikes failed half a century ago, leading to a catastrophe eerily similar to the one in Louisiana, the Dutch launched an ambitious scheme to build better defenses; after further flooding along the country’s rivers, as recently as 1995, they decided on a more radical approach – to revise their strategies toward water.

Having battled rivers and the sea for centuries by building bigger dikes, the Dutch have decided to work with nature instead of against it. While Americans talk about keeping water out of New Orleans, the Dutch in recent years have been talking about making ruimte voor water, “room for water,” and “building with nature.”

Every Dutch citizen who is old enough has a story to tell about the storm surge that burst through poorly maintained dikes 52 years ago, killing nearly 2,000 people. The Misery of 1953 is remembered alongside the storms of other centuries: the St. Elizabeth flood of 1421, the All Saints’ Day flood of 1570. And it prompted titanic works of hydraulic engineering that the American Society of Civil Engineers counts, alongside San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and Toronto’s CN Tower, among the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

But more importantly, the great flood of Holland’s delta region began a process that has led the world’s most water-weary people to reevaluate its age-old war on water and reach a kind of truce.

“We now realize we cannot cope with these problems if we continue to fight against the water,” Jeroen van der Sommen, managing director of the independent Netherlands Water Partnership, told me last week. “For now, maybe yes. In the long run, no. We are trying to imagine new kinds of protection.”

The American disaster has reinvigorated the ongoing Dutch debate about how to manage the country’s old foe, and where the weaknesses in its defenses (and evacuation plans) lie. It has also reminded people of the danger of complacency – that new kinds of protection may have been just what was missing in New Orleans, crouched as that city has long been behind its own poorly maintained levees in a river delta similar to the Rhine’s.

Van der Sommen, whose organization coordinates Dutch water expertise, does not mean to suggest that the old kinds of protection should go the way of windmills and wooden shoes. Far from it. Without the dikes and the dams, the levees and the locks, both Rotterdam and New Orleans would long ago have been inundated. Some of the Dutch dikes built since the 1950s tower as much 40 feet above the roiling deep – twice as high as New Orleans’ tallest levees.

But what the Dutch have been trying to do more recently is strengthen these “hard” protections with “soft” ones – reinforcing concrete with swamps and sand. They are focusing on the kind of fragile coastal landscape that Louisiana has steadily been losing: maintaining dunes and mud flats, protecting salt marshes and barrier islands, and creating artificial reefs to act as buffers against the waves’ relentless pounding.

The goal is no longer to control nature. “Resilience is the aim,” says a Dutch report titled “Water, Climate and Risk Management” put out by a core group of institutions that specialize in hydrology. “And it is thought this can partly be achieved by encouraging the natural transportation of sand by water and wind.” In some coastal areas, sand has been imported to reclaim land where breakwaters jut out into the sea, and then it’s been left to nature to do the rest. At the Hook of Holland, such natural building techniques have created beaches and a wildlife habitat as well as added protection for the land.

These strategies are made all the more urgent by climate change, which, estimates suggest, will cause the sea level to rise anywhere from a few inches to several feet over the next century. Add to that the increased runoff from the rivers that traverse the country and you can see why the Dutch are trying to go with the flow: If you want to keep your head above water, you have to be prepared to get your feet wet.

The Dutch created the Netherlands, but they have never been more aware – like the people of New Orleans – of how swiftly God could take them back.

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