THE PINK DOLPHIN 29/06/2017
In the waterlogged Netherlands, climate change is considered neither a hypothetical nor a drag on the economy. Instead, it’s viewed as an opportunity.
By Michael Kimmelman
The Erasmus bridge runs over the River Maas in Rotterdam. For the Dutch, living below sea level is not all about a bunch of dykes and dams, but a way of life AFP/Getty
The wind over the canal stirred up whitecaps and rattled cafe umbrellas. Rowers strained toward a finish line and spectators hugged the shore. Henk Ovink, hawkish, wiry, head shaved, watched from a VIP deck, one eye on the boats, the other, as usual, on his phone.
Ovink is the country’s globetrotting salesman-in-chief for Dutch expertise on rising water and climate change. Like cheese in France or cars in Germany, climate change is a business in the Netherlands. Month in, month out, delegations from as far away as Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, New York and New Orleans make the rounds in the port city of Rotterdam. They often end up hiring Dutch firms, which dominate the global market in high-tech engineering and water management.
That’s because from the first moment settlers in this small nation started pumping water to clear land for farms and houses, water has been the central, existential fact of life in the Netherlands, a daily matter of survival and national identity. No place in Europe is under greater threat than this waterlogged country on the edge of the Continent. Much of the nation sits below sea level and is gradually sinking. Now climate change brings the prospect of rising tides and fiercer storms.
From a Dutch mindset, climate change is not a hypothetical or a drag on the economy, but an opportunity. While the Trump administration withdraws from the Paris accord, the Dutch are pioneering a singular way forward.
It is, in essence, to let water in, where possible, not hope to subdue Mother Nature: to live with the water, rather than struggle to defeat it. The Dutch devise lakes, garages, parks and plazas that are a boon to daily life but also double as enormous reservoirs for when the seas and rivers spill over. You may wish to pretend that rising seas are a hoax perpetrated by scientists and a gullible news media. Or you can build barriers galore. But in the end, neither will provide adequate defence, the Dutch say.
Ninety per cent of the city of Rotterdam lies below sea level, with the northern districts most at risk from a rising ocean (red shaded areas are 5 metres below sea level)
And what holds true for managing climate change applies to the social fabric, too. Environmental and social resilience should go hand in hand, officials here believe, improving neighbourhoods, spreading equity and taming water during catastrophes. Climate adaptation, if addressed head-on and properly, ought to yield a stronger, richer state.
This is the message the Dutch have been taking out into the world. Dutch consultants advising the Bangladeshi authorities about emergency shelters and evacuation routes recently helped reduce the numbers of deaths suffered in recent floods to “hundreds instead of thousands,” according to Ovink.
“That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “You can say we are marketing our expertise, but thousands of people die every year because of rising water, and the world is failing collectively to deal with the crisis, losing money and lives.” He ticks off the latest findings: 2016 was the warmest year on record; global sea levels rose to new highs.
He proudly shows off the new rowing course just outside Rotterdam, where the World Rowing Championships were staged last summer. The course forms part of an area called the Eendragtspolder, a 22-acre patchwork of reclaimed fields and canals – a prime example of a site built as a public amenity that collects floodwater in emergencies. It is near the lowest point in the Netherlands, about 20 feet below sea level. With its bike paths and water sports, the Eendragtspolder has become a popular retreat. Now it also serves as a reservoir for the Rotte River Basin when the nearby Rhine overflows, which, because of climate change, it’s expected to do every decade.
Rowing teams practice at the Eendragtspolder, a site intended to be both a public amenity and a reservoir for floodwater (Flickr)
The project is among dozens in a nationwide program, years in the making, called Room for the River, which overturned centuries-old strategies of seizing territory from rivers and canals to build dams and dikes. The Netherlands effectively occupies the gutter of Europe, a lowlands bounded on one end by the North Sea, into which immense rivers like the Rhine and the Meuse flow from Germany, Belgium and France. Dutch thinking changed after floods forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate during the 1990s. The floods “were a wake-up call to give back to the rivers some of the room we had taken”, as Harold van Waveren, a senior government adviser, recently explained.
“We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-metre walls,” he said. “We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps and public spaces.”
In the Netherlands, scholarly articles about changes to the Arctic ice cap make front-page headlines. Long before climate change deniers began to campaign against science in the United States, Dutch engineers were preparing for apocalyptic, once-every-10,000-years storms. “For us, climate change is beyond ideology,” said Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb. He took me one morning around new waterfront development in a formerly poor, industrial neighbourhood, to show how urban renewal dovetails with strategies to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“If there is a shooting in a bar, I am asked a million questions,” Aboutaleb said of his city. “But if I say everyone should own a boat because we predict a tremendous increase in the intensity of rain, nobody questions the politics. Rotterdam lies in the most vulnerable part of the Netherlands, both economically and geographically. If the water comes in, from the rivers or the sea, we can evacuate maybe 15 out of 100 people. So evacuation isn’t an option. We can escape only into high buildings. We have no choice. We must learn to live with water.”
A Moroccan-born Muslim and a rising star in the Dutch political world who denounces religious radicals and reactionary nationalists alike, the mayor runs a traditionally tough, working-class city. Rotterdam today is anything but a paradise. It is riven by social fissures and discord over immigration. But it has begun to improve in recent years as it has become greener and more diverse. When asked about climate threats, the mayor talks about creating a less divided, more attractive, healthier city – more capable of facing the stresses climate change imposes on society.
“That’s just common sense,” Aboutaleb said. The Eendragtspolder is one example, he pointed out, repaying Rotterdam’s investment with green spaces and the rowing course, which has the added perk of aiding a prospective Dutch bid for the 2028 Olympics.
A storm surge in 1953 flooded the Dutch coastline, killing more than 1,800 people (AFP/Getty)
Levelled by bombs during the Second World War, Rotterdam is not quaint and touristic like Amsterdam but industrial, down to earth, a surprisingly stylish sleeper among Europe’s cultural hubs, with a legacy of radical architecture, attracting young designers and entrepreneurs. Its tradition of openness has made it a magnet for outsiders and helped it recover from years of hardship, when, during the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, it became notoriously crime-ridden and filthy, a place wealthy people fled.
Lately the city, accustomed to starting over, has reinvented itself as a capital of enterprise and environmental ingenuity. It has pioneered the construction of facilities like those parking garages that become emergency reservoirs, ensuring that the city can prevent sewage overflow from storms now predicted to happen every five or 10 years. It has installed plazas with fountains, gardens and basketball courts in under-served neighbourhoods that can act as retention ponds. It has reimagined its harbours and stretches of its formerly industrial waterfront as incubators for new businesses, schools, housing and parks.
These are all stops on the standard tour for visiting foreign delegations: proof-of-concept urban interventions, if not actually all-encompassing solutions, that address climate threats in ways that incrementally serve the economy and social needs.
“A smart city has to have a comprehensive, holistic vision beyond levees and gates,” as Arnoud Molenaar, the city’s climate chief, put it. “The challenge of climate adaptation is to include safety, sewers, housing, roads, emergency services. You need public awareness. You also need cyber-resilience, because the next challenge in climate safety is cybersafety. You can’t have vulnerable systems that control your sea gates and bridges and sewers. And you need good policies, big and small.
“This starts with little things, like getting people to remove the concrete pavement from their gardens so the soil underneath absorbs rainwater,” Molenaar said. “It ends with the giant storm surge barrier at the North Sea.”
A Vast Floodgate
That would be the Maeslantkering, built near the mouth of the sea, about a half-hour drive west from downtown Rotterdam – the city’s first line of defence. It is the size of two tubular Eiffel Towers, toppled over.
The Maeslantkering, an immense sea gate conceived decades ago to protect the port of Rotterdam
Publication of this article in “The Pink Dolphin” was inspired by Mr. Lourens de Groot, SELVA-Vida Sin Fronteras NL Chairman of the Board, who graciously introduced us to Rotterdam- Pieter Jan Brouwer
Gustavo López Ospina
Editor: Pieter Jan Brouwer
All Title photographs of the Amazon Pink fresh water Dolphin are the creation of Kevin Schafer.