Wednesday, November 28, 2007

From floating houses to rafts of hyacinths

Guardian (UK): The brightly painted homes that line the waterfront in Maasbommel, in the Dutch province of Gelderland, are eye-catching. They are also leading the way in the fight against climate change. In a country where more than half the land lies below sea level, these homes are built to be able to float.

Adri van Oojen, 44, designed the 48 homes of this kind in the region. Following the floods in 1995, which forced nearly 400,000 people in the Rhine floodplain to evacuate their homes, the Dutch government decided to strengthen the flood defences of the town by doubling the height of the dyke to 10 metres (33ft) above sea level.

…The house is formed of two parts. The bottom is made of hollow concrete to provide buoyancy and held in place with huge steel posts which are able to withstand the strong currents of the river. The top half is made of wood, making it lighter and easier to float. Water and electricity are brought in through flexible pipes that have been adapted to move when faced with the force of the water. This means that the house can rise up to four metres without losing its energy supply and remain habitable.

The homes are valued at approximately €300,000 (£215,500). Although they have yet to be tested, all 48 have been sold. However, Van Oojen is confident that they will play an important role in the future of flood defence for the Netherlands. He said the homes had been popular not only with holidaymakers but with people who wanted to make Maasbommel their home.

"In Holland we have always lived with this threat. We have to live with the water and not against it, so something needs to be done. With these homes, people now have the opportunity to live in a place with a high risk of water damage. They are able to live in places like this with beautiful views and not worry about evacuating."

He added that with a threat of floods in the area one year in every 15, dykes were not always enough for people who wanted to live on the waterfront. "The government needs an answer to deal with the effects of climate change," he said.

While rich countries are building houses that can float, developing countries such as Vietnam are giving people swimming lessons in the hope they will survive flooding caused by global warming. Few in the developing world can afford the investment required to defend against flooding. Yet the impact of climate change is the greatest for countries such as Kenya and Vietnam, where mass poverty is already a big problem.

In West Bengal in India, the Ganges Delta area known as the chars is home to more than 2.5 million people, of whom 80% live in extreme poverty. With minor floods causing high levels of damage and flooding a constant threat, people cope by rebuilding their homes when they are destroyed. Steps are being taken to make homes more flood-proof by building earth platforms to accommodate buildings for four households or erecting bamboo flood shelters on stilts to take refuge above monsoon floodwaters.

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