The Water-Proof City: What we can Learn About Climate Resilience from the Dutch

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In the beginning of 1953, a catastrophe—something still referred to as "The Disaster" by the Dutch—hit the Netherlands. The storm, causing 1836 casualties and breaching over 150 dykes, swept the country from Saturday, January 31st to Sunday, February 1st. Neighboring countries, comparatively, suffered minimal damage.

The main reason for the disproportionate amount of destruction caused in the Netherlands compared to its neighboring countries has to do with the country's geography. Three rivers, the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt, flow through Holland, emptying into the North Sea. This makes the region a river delta with about a fourth of the entire country and half of highly developed areas below sea level. In fact, the "Netherlands" translates to "low-lying country"! The land's flood prone nature means that careful water management has been practiced in the area since medieval times, sparking lots of technological innovation in the space. Today, a system of dykes and complex irrigation techniques has created spans of flat, reclaimed land called polders.

An intriguing case study of the Netherland's fight against flooding is the city of Rotterdam. With 90% of its territory lying below sea level, Rotterdam has become a pioneer in climate resilience. On the city's first line of defense is the colossal Maeslantkering—a two armed gate, each side just as tall and twice the heavy as the Eiffel Tower. Just a thirty minute drive from downtown Rotterdam, this unprecedented feat of engineering was completed in 1997. Triggered by automatic sensors measuring sea levels, the arms move towards the center, lock, fill with water, and sink into the concrete bed, creating an impenetrable wall against the North Sea. The entire process takes two-and-a-half hours and, save for regular testing, it has never needed to be deployed. Other initiatives to protect the city from extreme rainfall is the promotion of green roofs for urban farming. These serve both as a way to bring fresh produce closer to home but also to store surplus water during extreme rainfall. Not only does Rotterdam practice sophisticated water management, they have even learned how to turn water into land as exemplified in The Floating Pavilion, floating houses in the Nassau Harbour, Experimental Zone Aqua Dock, and most notably The Floating Farm. Spearheaded by Peter van Wingerden Beladon, this $2.2 million prototype includes 120 solar panels and 40 cows that can deliver 800 liters of milk per day. The farm also practices sustainability in recycling manure and using feed made from waste products from mills, breweries, potato factories, and even golf courses. These are only a few examples of climate adaptation in the Netherlands.

The Maeslantkering storm surge barrier
The world's first floating farm making waves in Rotterdam

Holland's need to adapt to the changing climate in order to survive is not a unique characteristic. Over 800 million people live in areas that are likely going to be affected by extreme weather levels by 2050 if we prevent temperatures from rising above 2°C. Thankfully, the Netherlands offers a model example of utilizing innovative feats of engineering and careful water management to build climate resilience.

More posts by Linda Wu.
The Water-Proof City: What we can Learn About Climate Resilience from the Dutch
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