Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Room for the river -- in the Netherlands, along the Mississippi

Renee Jones-Bos, the Dutch ambassador to the US, reflects on the recent Mississippi floods in the New Orleans Times Picayne: Nature can be ruthless. Whether you live along the Mississippi River or in the Dutch delta, water is at once your best friend and your worst enemy.

When snow falls in Montana, or rain in western New York, it cascades through America's heartland and along the Mississippi River system that drains two-fifths of the U.S. landmass. Similarly, a snowflake falling in Switzerland or a raindrop falling in northern France follows a familiar course to the Netherlands. The Mississippi River deltaic plain and the Rhine-Maas delta are the river systems' valves.

…For me, as ambassador of the Netherlands, this year's Mississippi flooding is a reminder of 1993 and 1995, when our rivers swelled to unprecedented levels. Large tracts of farmland were inundated; 250,000 people were evacuated. Direct flood damages exceeded $300 million, or 0.5 percent of Dutch GDP.

Our pat response to previous floods was much like those in the United States: Build the dikes higher, constrain the rivers more tightly, master the landscape. But something changed in the Netherlands in the late 1990s. More homes and businesses than ever had been built directly "behind the dikes," in subsiding land. Climate change began to produce wetter winters, leading to repeated, dangerous river crests.

Room for the River was born. This project, which started in 2006, restores the river's natural flood plain in places where it is least harmful in order to protect those areas that need to be defended. By 2015, through a series of 35 projects costing $3 billion, we will have lowered and broadened our flood plain and created river diversions and temporary water storage areas. We will restore marshy riverine landscapes to serve once again as natural "water storage" sponges and provide biodiversity and aesthetic and recreational values.

Complementing Room for the River are two corollary policies: "Retain, Store, Drain" and "Living With Water." They encourage neighborhoods to retain water where it falls, using cisterns, green roofs and floodable parks. Living With Water demands that urban planners and water managers create communities wherein water is a cherished asset and not something to fear and keep out of sight.

These efforts have not come without controversy. The Netherlands is the world's third-most-densely populated country. Intensive land use is common. Forgoing hard-won reclaimed land is politically difficult. But the disastrous floods of the '90s provided fertile political ground to start a process involving all stakeholders: citizens, businesses and local governments…

A scene from the 1993 flooding in the Netherlands, by Michiel1972, Wikimedia Commons

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