Living with Water


"In the waterlogged Netherlands, climate change is considered neither a hypothetical nor a drag on the economy. Instead, its an opportunity."

- The New York Times, June 2017.

The Netherlands represent one of the most vulnerable regions to sea level rise in the world. In fact, the nomenclature "Netherlands" is Dutch for "low countries," or "lowlands", which is accurate because 1/4 of the country is actually below sea level. The country's lowest point, Zuidplaspolder, is a polder at 23 feet below sea level. In the Netherlands, the conversation has shifted from mitigation to adaptation - the Dutch are focused on working with, rather than against, climate change. The Dutch have unfortunately learned the hard way. In 1953, intense flooding from the North Sea killed over 1,800 people overnight. In just one night, the Netherlands were forever changed.In this country of environmental ingenuity, sea walls, dams, and dikes are old news.While most of the world is focused on building walls in attempt to keep water out, or pretending that sea level rise is a myth that might one day disappear, the Dutch are taking a different approach. They are letting water in - and as much as possible.One such example is 22-acres of reclaimed canals just outside of Rotterdam, an area called the Eendragtspolder, which serves to collect water from the Rotte River Basin when the nearby Rhine River overflows, which it is anticipated to do every ten years due to climate change. The Eendragtspolder is also home to bike paths, water sports, and a brand new rowing course, where last year's World Rowing Championships were held.BUILDING WITH NATURE:Eendragtspolder is just one example of a nationwide initiative, called Room for the River, which is focused on just that - making more space for the increasing levels of water. Mechanisms include: depoldering, deepening summer beds, lowering flood plains, implementing high water channels to drain water, you name it."We can't just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls. 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." - Harold van Waveren, senior government adviser, Netherlands. THE SAND MOTOR:Each year, an increasing amount of sand from the Dutch coast is swept out to sea. Consequently, every five years, the beaches must be replenished with dredged sand in order to protect the Netherlands from complete sea exposure. This is no cheap feat.Introducing the Sand Motor.sand engineOften proclaimed the best marine engineers in the world, the Dutch have pioneered yet another fascinating initiative: the Sand Motor.The first of its kind, the Sand Motor, also known as the Sand Engine or De Zandmotor, is 21.5 million cubic meters of dredged sand that has been added to the coast of South Holland at Ter Heijde with trailing suction hopper dredges. The aspiration is that the rising sea currents will naturally spread the sand into protective barriers along the coast, without disturbing local ecosystems. If all goes as planned, sand replenishment will be unnecessary for at least 20 years, resulting in hefty cost savings. The project is part of a larger public-private partnership called Building With Nature, an ensemble of researchers and practitioners (many from the Netherlands) examining novel approaches to hydraulic engineering using natural resources. A similar initiative, Engineering With Nature, is led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The future of construction will undeniably change over the coming decades as urban planners and developers will be increasingly forced to adapt to nature.The Sand Motor is not only a mechanism for enhanced flood protection,  but it has also become a focal point for coastal management research and an enjoyable area for water sports enthusiasts, as kite and windsurfers have been granted additional beach space.The Sand Motor officially emerged in 2011 and is behaving as predicted thus far. Total cost spent on research and implementation is an approximate $81 million."We have a lot of knowledge on how to build dikes. Dikes are built to last 50 years. But we don't know what the conditions will be like in 50 years. We need something we can adjust as we acquire more knowledge on dealing with sea-level rise and storm intensity." - Jasper Fiselier, Environmental Engineer, Royal HaskoningDHV.

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress." - Frederick Douglass 

Somewhat paradoxically, the port of Rotterdam - one of the world's busiest ports accounting for 180,000 jobs - supports five oil refineries, along with a massive coal-fire power plant. The port is said to account for 17% of the entire nation's carbon footprint. Skeptics point to the fact that Rotterdam's economy relies heavily on the fossil fuel industry. Yet, the nation describes plans for greening the port, primarily through renewable energy such as enormous wind farms.Regardless, the future of the port depends almost entirely on the Maeslantkering, a massive sea gate monitored by computers. The Maeslantkering is an impressive work of engineering - each arm of the gate is equivalent height and twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower.sea gateWhen the gate is closed, the tubes fill with water and sink into concrete. After two and a half hours, an intense steel wall is formed against the North Sea. Thirty pumps inside the gate are connected to a power grid, and a backup grid, and if all else fails a generator. These pumps extract water from the tubes when it it is time for the gate to open. The entire process is automated by computers. The country's greatest protector comes with a level of danger. The implications of a broken gate are tremendous - if, for some reason, the gate could not reopen, water from the Meuse and Rhine rivers would have nowhere to flow and would completely demolish Rotterdam. Escape would be impossible."We believe you get the smartest solutions when communities are engaged and help make the links between water and neighborhood development" - Wynand Dassen, Manager of Rotterdam ResilienceThe Netherlands' climate change strategy involves the entire community. In order to use all public pools, Dutch children are required to earn diplomas that require swimming while fully clothed. "It's a basic part of our culture, like riding a bike," says Rem Koolhaas, Dutch architect. Many locals use a national GPS app that indicates at all times exactly how far below sea level they are standing. Local bar talk is inundated with conversations about sea level rise and advanced water technologies.swimmingOver the past two decades, the Netherlands have pioneered some of the most interesting and successful climate change solutions, introducing the first-ever solar powered bike lane and the first-ever smog eating sidewalk (yes, you read that correctly, pavement blocks covered in titanium oxide, a photocatalytic chemical that actually extracts pollutants from the air and transforms said pollutants into less harmful substances). The smog eating sidewalks have been said to reduce air pollution by 45% in ideal weather conditions. Currently, the Dutch are implementing solar-powered drones that collect plastic trash form the sea.

"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." -  Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam, Netherlands.

In the Netherlands, the most successful climate change approach has been the path of least resistance: working with climate change, rather than against it.