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Sea Levels Are Rising — But the Dutch Have a Solution

Viv Lynch/Flickr

In the Netherlands, water is a part of life — in fact, it’s practically a national identity. Since the first settlers moved there, pumping water to clear land for houses and farms has been a daily matter of survival.

Now, with climate change causing sea levels to rise worldwide, the nation, which sits mostly below sea level, has not only developed ways to work around rising oceans but is sharing that solution with the world.

Their philosophy? To devise ways to live with the water, rather than fight it.

The Dutch have done this by creating public spaces — such as plazas with fountains, gardens, and basketball courts — that act as retention ponds.

For example, a 22-acre area of reclaimed fields and canals called the Eendragtspolder outside of Rotterdam doubles as a pool to collect floodwater in emergencies and a popular retreat, equipped with bike paths and a rowing course where the World Rowing Championships were staged last summer.

The Maeslantkering, a massive floodgate twice as heavy as the Eiffel Tower, serves as the city’s first line of defense.

dam netherlandsImage: bertknot/Flickr

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What used to be a railway switching station, Dakpark, has been transformed into a dike and a shopping center, with a park on the roof to serve a neighborhood once riddled with drug dealers and crime.

“We believe you get the smartest solutions when communities are engaged and help make the links between water and neighborhood development,” Wynand Dassen, the manager of Rotterdam’s resilience team, told the Times.

They’ve built big sea gates and bigger dams, but a bigger part of the Dutch plan involves a combination of forward-thinking spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps, and clever use of public spaces.  

“We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” Harold van Waveren, a senior government adviser, recently explained. “We need to give the rivers more places to flow.”

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In communities throughout the nation, small urban renewal efforts are being made to add to the strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change.

A nationally-available, GPS-guided app was created so that residents can always gather how far above or below the sea level they are. Dutch children are required to earn diplomas stating they’ve completed a course where they learned how to swim in their clothes and shoes.

People are encouraged to buy boats and remove concrete pavement from their gardens so that the soil underneath can better absorb rainwater. Climate change is not dismissed or considered an ideology and scholarly updates about the melting Arctic ice cap frequently make front-page news.

Rotterdam, as well as the rest of the country, serves as a model of water management, successful urban intervention, and high-tech engineering.

For this reason, foreign delegations from Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, New Orleans, and New York have all made their rounds in the port city, the Times reports.

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“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,” Henk Ovink, the country’s Special Envoy for International Water Affairs, told The New York Times.

These places, as well as France’s Rhone Valley, Florida’s Key West, and Alaska’s small coastal community of Kivalina, are on the growing list of places at risk of being underwater in a few years time. If global temperatures rise by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — a level well above pre-industrial levels — roughly 80% of the world’s coastlines could be drastically changed by rising seas.

“A smart city has to have a comprehensive, holistic vision beyond levees and gates,” Arnoud Molenaar, the city’s climate chief, said. “The challenge of climate adaptation is to include safety, sewers, housing, roads, emergency services. You need public awareness...and you need good policies, big and small.”

For now, as water creeps up on shorelines everywhere, the world can look to the Netherlands for all-encompassing solutions.