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The Dutch strive to make their country 'climate proof'

AMSTERDAM -- "Can we actually save the Netherlands? Or should we abandon part of the country?" This is the basic question Dutch leaders were asking themselves within the context of global warming after witnessing Hurricane Katrina's devastating blow to New Orleans in 2005.

During a visit to the Netherlands last week, a delegation from Washington and Louisiana heard that Katrina was a wake-up call for the Dutch because it showed them that levees could fail and that there could be catastrophic damages.

Partly for this reason, the Dutch government appointed a commission -- the second Delta Commission -- in 2007 with a broad mandate spread over a very long term (2100-2200). The commission was asked to evaluate the potential effects of climate change in the Netherlands and to propose measures to "climate-proof" the country: keep it safe from flooding, while preserving its status as an attractive place to invest in, work and live.

The commission concluded that a regional sea level rise of 0.65 to 1.3 meters (2.13 to 4.27 feet) by 2100 and of 2 to 4 meters (6.56 to 13.12 feet) by 2200 should be taken into account. The sea level along the Dutch coast has already risen by approximately 20 centimeters (7.87 inches) over the past century. "Climate change is now forcing itself upon us: a new reality that cannot be ignored," wrote the commission in its report, published last year.

"It's not that we believe that the sea level will rise by 2 meters, but we do need to make sure we take the necessary measures," professor Louise Fresco, a Delta Commission member, told the American delegation, led by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson during a briefing in The Hague on the commission's findings.

Saving the Dutch delta region requires 'immediate measures'

The commission concluded that the Dutch can continue to live in their flood-prone delta region if they take immediate measures. "This is music to my ears," commented Landrieu, who compared this clear conclusion with the "mixed signals the people of south Louisiana" have been receiving from the U.S. federal government about whether or not they should remain where they live.

Most of the Dutch interviewed last week during the visit reported that the local population generally has great faith in the capacity of its engineers and its government to protect them against flooding.

"People here trust their government and don't realize they live below sea level," concurred Sandy Rosenthal, executive director of Louisiana-based Levees.org. "They laughed at us when we asked what would happen if the levees break. They say they are not going to break." More than half of the Netherlands is below sea level.

"People are not worried, but they are not completely aware of the situation; they forget they live below sea level," confirmed Arnoud Molenaar, a program manager at the Rotterdam Climate Initiative.

Yet the Delta Commission has warned that implementing its recommendations is urgent and that the Netherlands must act immediately to improve its protection system, as current standards of flood protection are out of date, and in some places, even these old standards are not met.

The commission formulated a list of recommendations that are now going through Parliament and various levels of government. It recommended measures such as raising flood protection levels in all diked areas by a factor of 10 and creating a special delta fund to be supplied from loans and the transfer of some of the country's natural gas revenues, to a total amounting to 1 percent of gross national product. The cost of the Delta Program is estimated at €1.2 billion to €1.6 billion per year until 2050.

In the years to come, the Dutch also plan to continue working on what they call the "weak links" in their already impressive coastal defenses, as well as improving discharge capacity for the Rhine and Meuse rivers, through programs such as the Room for the River Program.

Living below sea level requires a plan and a large fund

The comprehensiveness and long-term horizon of the Dutch strategy seem to have impressed the members of the American delegation, who came to the Netherlands to learn about this country's water management model for urban and rural areas.

"What I like about the Delta Commission is that they are thinking about the next 100 to 200 years of water management," said EPA's Jackson in an interview. "Obviously, in a place like [the Netherlands], this is literally a matter of survival, but, at a minimum, we have to make sure that the infrastructure investment that we are making today [in the United States] will last more than five to 10 years in the future."

"We learned here that you need a definite source of funding and a master plan," added Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, president of the New Orleans City Council. "The Dutch have built a Delta Fund and a Delta Program, and we need to do the same thing."

Clarkson would also like to see a high-level commission set up for the New Orleans area along the lines of the Dutch commission. "We cannot have the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] making its policy according to what Congress can afford and what they think they can build," added Clarkson. "We have to define what is the best we can do and then figure out how to implement it and fund it."

In the Netherlands, civil engineers were also asked to change their ways after major floods struck the country in the 1990s (people were evacuated on a large scale because the stability of the dikes was in doubt). These events were the most threatening the Netherlands had known since the devastating flood of 1953, which killed about 2,000 people and led to a spectacular reinforcement of the coastal protection system.

Added to the potential consequences of climate change, the 1990s floods made the Dutch aware that they could not go on raising their dikes indefinitely, and that excluding water would not bring about sustainable safety. This realization led them to adopt a new policy aimed at giving more space to water through solutions that seek not only to increase safety levels, but also to garner social, environmental and economic benefits.

For the Dutch engineers, this was a cultural revolution as radical as the one that some in Louisiana wish the Army Corps of Engineers will face. "Our engineers had been trained to build infrastructures -- dikes, sluices, etc. -- not to buy land [to create space for water], but building infrastructures was not enough anymore," said Joost Buntsma, senior policy adviser at the Dutch Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management.

Green roofs and 'water plazas' in Rotterdam

Hence the search for new solutions in rural as well as urban areas. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, which aims to be "100 percent climate proof" by 2025 -- but where traditional solutions such as creating new canals or strengthening levees do not suffice -- the municipality is working on alternative solutions such as underground water storage to catch stormwater, subsidies for residents wishing to install green roofs, or water plazas built in such a way that they can serve as playgrounds in dry weather and as basins for storing water during heavy rainstorms.

Daniel Goedbloed, program manager for the city of Rotterdam's water management services -- who showed the American delegation a parking garage under construction that will double as a water storage facility -- said he believes New Orleans should follow the "give water space" path chosen by the Netherlands.

He acknowledged that local conditions in the Netherlands are different from those in the Louisiana delta, noting that rainfall is 10 times as intense in New Orleans as in Rotterdam.

"But that emphasizes the need to create more storage capacity there to store the rainwater," he said. "You can do that by making canals and using them to store the water while at the same time using this water to make the city more attractive; it's also a good way to reduce soil subsidence."

Sen. Landrieu would like to import this concept to Louisiana. "Our canals are very unattractive; we've covered many of them up, and then the ones which are open have these terrible structures and are used only for drainage. So we are trying to figure out a better way to do our canals, our landscaping," she said, adding that Louisianans wish to build levees that are attractive. She noted that at present, "these terrible, high concrete walls" separate the people from the river.

"We've learnt from the Dutch that you can have great protection, but instead of a wall, maybe you have a building, maybe you have a park," she said. "People say we can't afford that, but it can actually be cheaper to do it that way, because you can use it for two or three different purposes. This integrated European model is a very important concept to introduce into American schools of engineering and architecture."

In the Netherlands, said the Delta Commission's Fresco, the "dikes of the future" will indeed become multi-functional -- some existing dikes already are. They must integrate entities as varied as industrial buildings and leisure facilities such as cinemas and parks.