The little Dutch boy has gone, but his spirit lives on in climate change strategies

Every American has probably heard of the little Dutch boy who saved his country by putting his finger in the dike, but they may not know how the Netherlands is coping with its latest threat: rising sea levels driven by global warming and dikes that may no longer be high enough.

The Dutch got an early sense of being unprotected in the 1950s. Delayed renovations following World War II left the structural integrity of many dikes weakened. When stormy high tides from the North Sea threatened surrounding coastlines in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, Feb. 1, 1953, low-lying communities took the hit.

The Netherlands sustained nearly 2,000 dead from floods in Zeeland. After years of negotiations and planning, work began to secure the safety of Dutch below-sea-level cities by doing what at the time seemed the best solution: throw more concrete at the problem.

The result was the construction of the 9-kilometer-long (5.6-mile-long) Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, now considered the eighth man-made wonder of the world, as well as several sluice gates, locks, dams, levees and the raising of regional dikes around the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta.

The old polder model was still in place, but now it was supercharged with a new tactic of determining action based on a cost-benefit analysis. How much will it cost to protect the land and at what point should the flooding risk be deemed acceptable?

With the completion of the Delta Works project in the 1980s, the Netherlands had what it considered to be high safety standards: In many areas, the new protections allowed for a risk of one-in-10,000-years floods to lead to a potential fatal disaster. It made the hand-wringing over 100-year flood risks, which continue in the United States, look like child's play.

A scare from America

"Then, New Orleans happened, and then Al Gore," said Jaap Kwadijk, scientific director of Deltares, an independent applied research institute in Delft, Netherlands, that focuses on infrastructure in flood-prone regions. In an interview at its headquarters, he added, "Despite that we were well-protected ... the image was that the Netherlands might not be safe. And that's bad for business."

With climate change and sea-level rise, it became clear that the nation's experience with flooding was about to get a good deal worse.

After earlier European examples from Finland, France and Spain, the Netherlands in 2007 formulated a National Adaptation Strategy called "Make Space for Climate!" This included the creation of a delta commissioner for Holland to specifically deal with the concerns over freshwater sustainability and flood protection.

The Delta commissioner, Wim Kuijken, brought together a team of experts, including Kwadijk and colleagues from Deltares, to answer four questions. They found the maximum sea-level rise between now and 2100 would be 2.1 to 3.3 feet and that the Netherlands could be defended against that at a cost of $1.25 billion a year. A fund to generate that amount was established.

The result was the birth of the Delta Act: Each year, a new Delta program would look further into the future to see what else needed to be done. Much of the work today focuses on returning the land to the watershed. The first phase of the Delta program, "Make Room for the River," removed 150 houses from river basins. Homeowners were given the option to be bought out or, when possible, move their houses to safer locations.

Next year's discussions in Parliament will focus on the horizon of 2028. "So we are also able do more if the situation will be worse and do less if the situation will be better," explained Melanie Schultz van Haegen-Maas Geesteranus, who, as the minister of infrastructure and the environment, has held the position of approving the delta programs for the past four years.

Planning for the 'awareness gap'


"When something goes wrong in the Netherlands, it really, really goes wrong," she explained during an interview in Rotterdam. "Sixty percent of our land is prone to flooding; 9 million people are living in these areas; 75 percent of our GDP is earned within this area. So we can't just discuss if sea level is rising and how high it will go. We have to take into account the worse scenarios."

This year, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that wasn't enough and said that "Dutch citizens take current levels of water security for granted." The OECD concluded there was an "awareness gap" and that citizens' "willingness to pay for a service they take for granted may erode in the future."

The government recently released an app to make the situation more graphic. It shows by ZIP code where properties are in relation to sea level. Homeowners can learn whether it is just their basement they need to pump dry or whether the whole house will go under. The goal was to show immediate vulnerability.

"The app only shows inundation depth during present sea level conditions. The purpose is to make people aware and help them to prepare for critical situations," explained Jos van Alphen, who is working with the Delta program commissioner.

There are some people who will fare better than others, despite the mounting risk. Enter the ZIP code for Olaf Janssen's house in the Delft region, and the app shows he has built in an area that is 2 meters (6.56 feet) below sea level. But unlike other homeowners in the neighborhood, Janssen's house will be high and dry.

It isn't on land, it's on water. He insists you can't call it a houseboat. Perhaps Americans might call it a "home boat."

"You want a house with the same comfort as a house on land, and that's a big challenge," Janssen said while standing in his living room where floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors give him a water view.

Afloat in a 'temporary water storage area'

"This is totally new; there is no building such as this," he said, referring specifically to the fiberglass reinforced composite walls more frequently found in luxury yachts. The house is thermally isolated, as well. "The amount of energy consumption to warm or cool is very low."

Janssen is doing his own business building floating houses, or, as he calls them, "water houses." He started with his own three-level house on a drainage pond that's used for water storage during severe rainfalls. The first level, or basement, is below the water line but not anchored to the ground. Should flooding occur, the entire house rises up, attached to long pilings that keep it from floating away.

Water houses offer delta regions such as Delft an option to change needed water storage areas into zones of multiple functions, including residential areas. "The circumstance of climate change and rainfall peaks means we need the ability to move water away quickly or to provide temporary storage," an alderman of the city of Delft, Raimond de Prez, explained while visiting Janssen's water house recently.

The price for buying a water plot in Delft is about $627 per square meter, compared with $815 to $1,500 per square meter for land-based property. Construction costs are about the same: between $1,500 to $2,007 per square meter.

In the Netherlands, homeowners on land are often required to allocate between 60 to 70 percent of their property to gardens in order to allow enough land for proper water drainage. For water plots, though, the house can take up to 50 percent of the property. Janssen's house, for example, was built on land first and then transferred to the water storage basin via a crane. A dock extends from the shore across his property to the front door.

More survival strategies

In finding new ways to store water and use space at the same time for other purposes, the Netherlands has turned to green initiatives. In Rotterdam, less than 2 percent of the area is surface water and is mostly canals.

"The rest is all pavement and buildings, so when rain falls, it is quickly collected in the underground sewage system of the city," said Bas de Wildt, public works adviser. Rainwater is collected with wastewater and then pumped through a pipeline under the river Maas to a treatment facility before being released into the river and out to sea.

"But when heavy rains start falling, pumps do not have enough capacity to pump it to the cleaning system, so the sewage system is filling itself, and when it is completely filled and it is still raining, then there is a possibility that it overflows into the canal to prevent inundating the streets," de Wildt said.

But while the city manages the sewage system, a different governing body, the water board, manages the wastewater treatment facility and the water in the canals. "The water board is not amused when we overflow from our sewage system to the canal -- sometimes it smells and causes dead fish," a situation that de Wildt said can happen four or five times a year.

"With climate changing, more heavy rainfalls [are expected], so the water board and the city of Rotterdam said, 'To prevent water damage, we have to plan to get more water storage.'"

They have since converted part of an underground parking garage into a 10,000-cubic-meter storage tank for sewage overflow situations, they have relied on green roofs to slow drainage into the sewage system when it rains, and they rebuilt what was once a concrete plaza into a recreational space designed to hold floodwaters during storms.

But the best is yet to come. Next year, the city's Steigersgracht Canal will host a surfing wave pool that will work to clean the water that otherwise stagnates. Now that's one way to keep the public motivated.

Twitter: @seagirlreed | Email:

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