Friday, February 8, 2008

What the Dutch know about deltas

The Ambassador to the U.S. from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Christiaan Kroner, knows a thing or two about holding the water back. He addressed the subject with a California audience recently in the San Francisco Chronicle: The challenges of climate change, water management, innovation and leadership bind California and the Netherlands together. Climate change complicates water management: a matter of national survival for the Dutch. It is a matter of survival for all of us living in river deltas whether in New Orleans, Sacramento or Amsterdam. Two-thirds of the Netherlands is at or below sea-level, more than 11 million people live in flood-prone areas and 70 percent of Dutch GDP is produced there.

…Given our thousand-year history of coping with floods, Dutch engineering has developed a high level of flood protection. Cities have flood protection infrastructure designed to withstand a 1 in 10,000 year flood, while rural and sparsely populated areas are protected against a 1 in 1,250 year flood. Sacramento's protection is much lower.

Climate change is a reality here and now. In the mid 1990s, wet weather in the Alps and physical changes to the river channel and development patterns upstream in Germany caused flooding in Holland. Some 250,000 people were evacuated and valuable land was flooded. It was time to rethink our water management policies. Instead of trying to control water everywhere and all the time, we created policies of adaptation and mitigation to work with nature, and give room for water to flow.

One key element of Dutch water management is the "Room for the Rivers" policy, which impacts urban and rural areas along the major rivers. Primary river levees are being set back from the river channel and summer dikes are being lowered. Natural and manmade structures in the river's floodplain - groins, buildings, oxbows - are being removed. River channels are being deepened, broadened. "Green rivers" - dry, grassy channels used for parks and recreation that serve as flood overflow areas during water emergencies - are being created in and around vulnerable Dutch towns. These and similar actions allow rivers to safely overflow their banks during flood emergencies and facilitate efficient water flow downstream and out to sea. More important, these actions lower the overall high-water level, which has numerous benefits....

Room for the Rivers is not without costs. Agriculture is an important component of the Dutch economy, and some farmers have been relocated or have had to give up their property - of course with proper compensation. The Netherlands is the world's third-most-densely populated country, and asking cities and communities to give up land that they need for homes and businesses was not easy. Impacted communities had lively discussions about Room for the Rivers, but in the end these trade-offs were deemed to be appropriate because they provide the Netherlands with a more durable, sustainable approach to flood control.

With our extensive history in adapting and mitigating water challenges, we know that tackling climate change can also make countries stronger, wealthier, more productive, creative and innovative. That is what we owe to future generations….

Photo of a Dutch stream, "Smoutjesvliet in Goudriaan," by Johi, via Wikimedia Commons

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