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The Dutch’s History Controlling Water May Yet Save Us All

One of the oldest axioms in real estate is that land only grows in value because we can‘t make more of it. The Dutch have been proving that adage wrong for centuries. Today nearly 20 percent of the total land area of The Netherlands once belonged to the sea. Reclamation work continues to this day, using the latest technology, engineering, and infrastructure to shore up historic efforts against the threat of rising seas. Recent reclamation efforts are focused on creating land to give back to the water instead of expanding urban districts. 

Centuries of Dutch expertise have met its biggest challenge yet: rising sea levels. Roughly 27 percent of The Netherlands is already below sea level, home to about 17 million people, 60 percent of the country’s population, making the nation one of the most vulnerable to a changing climate. A new breed of Dutch hydrologists and civil engineers are bringing a counterintuitive approach to water mitigation built on a long history of successes and failures: letting water in instead of keeping it out. 

The Dutch have a saying, “While God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands.” At the mouth of the Rhine, Schelde, and Meuse rivers, the earliest settlers dealt with incessant flooding, building up terpenes, earth mounds where that housed entire villages. The Netherlands has been growing larger in land size through reclamation since, tracing its roots of earth reclamation to as early as 500 BC. As sea levels naturally fell and exposed new land beneath, the Dutch people known as Frisians inhabiting the region built primitive dikes just a couple of feet high to permanently claim the land for new settlements and agriculture. Areas were slowly expanded by filling them with sand through a labor-intensive practice known as manual dredging, digging from the riverbed, and stacking it along the shore. Early Dutch flood mitigation efforts failed dramatically in 1287 when the St. Lucia flood killed over 50,000 people, setting work back centuries. 

Over hundreds of years, the Dutch worked tirelessly to push back the encroaching water. Windmills gave the Dutch the ability to drain, pump, and control water, creating polders, a Dutch word for a piece of land elevated above its surroundings. Windmills pumping water off the land into canals have become synonymous with The Netherlands, which literally means “low country” and was formally proclaimed as a nation in 1581. Each subsequent flooding disaster has forced the Dutch back to the drawing board, improving designs and infrastructure in a never-ending war against erosion and flooding. Mechanical dredging with ships became the backbone of the Dutch economy, moving massive amounts of earth to dramatically speed reclamation efforts. Another devastating flood in 1953 was the impetus for the Delta Act in 1958, fundamentally changing how dikes and canals were built and administered. The new system set out to build the North Sea Protection Works, a series of dams and barriers across the entire coastline now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. 

The Dutch are so serious about controlling water they’ve established independent water authorities known as waterschap or water boards. Acting outside of governing bodies like provinces or municipalities, the boards hold their own elections and levy their own taxes in a concerted effort to manage waterways, polders, drainage issues, erosion, and flooding. Peaking at around 3,500 water boards in the 19th century, they’ve been consolidated down to 21 in 2021. Water boards have overseen Dutch efforts to transition from windmills to electric and diesel-driven pumps. To this day, Dutch water boards are the foremost experts in water management. 

Today’s efforts are still focused on reclamation but the approach to flood mitigation has changed. Mechanical dredging is still a critical part of the solution but is only making the problem worse. Dredging equipment and ships are powered by fossil fuels, burning up to 800 gallons of fuel every hour. Land is being reclaimed and left vacant as nature preserves instead of being urbanized. The province of Limburg, the Limburg Water Board, and the municipalities of Horst aan de Maas, Venray and Rijkswaterstaa all worked together on Maaspark Ooijen-Wanssum, creating 540 hectares of natural wetlands completed in 2020. The idea was to let the water flow by raising the Meuse river high enough for it to automatically flow in a safe direction. Steep, high ground dikes mean no locks or pumps are required. In the event of a flood, the nature preserve retains water, flooding itself to protect surrounding areas. That means agriculture or buildings aren’t viable, allowing the reclaimed land to act as a freely accessible natural preserve, restoring native wildlife. 

Maaspark Ooijen-Wanssum got its first major test not long after completion. Finished in late 2020, Maaspark Ooijen-Wanssum was called into action during the summer floods of 2021. The nature preserve absorbed so much water that parts of the Meuses river saw water levels drop by 13 inches, preventing disaster. Working with nature and giving the river extra room to flow when it needs to instead of forcing it into smaller canals and waterways is the core philosophy of The Netherlands’ current approach to flood mitigation. The nation’s $2.7 billion Room For The River initiative has seen 30 similar projects aimed at creating natural containment areas for the Meuse and Rhine. 

Water containment is impacting Dutch urban design through the inclusion of water squares in cities. Cities and district water boards are using the urban landscape’s impervious surfaces to guide water into floodable areas of the urban landscape, acting as public spaces and parks in dry times and floodwater detention areas when called for. Green roofs with soil and vegetation that can absorb water are becoming standard across most Dutch cities. 

The Dutch have already begun exporting their expertise to other areas impacted by flooding and rising sea levels. The U.N. Environment Programs worked with the Dutch government to create the Global Center of Excellence on Climate Adaptation in the Netherlands. More than 80 groups of foreign officials have toured The Netherlands system of water squares, improved levies, raiseable dikes, and reclaimed wetlands. Dutch water expertise is becoming a major economic driver. Dutch engineering firms earn nearly $10 billion annually in foreign design contracts, working with clients in the United States, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, England, Vietnam, China, and others. 

Still, some critics say The Netherlands is simply buying time, not safety. Experts say rising sea levels make living below sea level unsustainable. The question could soon become what areas of the Netherlands are worth saving and at what cost. At some point, it doesn’t make fiscal sense to continue fighting a losing battle. Many areas of The Netherlands have already been vacated, giving back property to the water as a key part of providing land for the government’s Room For The River program. How much sea-level rise The Netherlands can withstand is a function of how much time the nation has to prepare. The nation’s largest cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht, making up the megapolis known as the Randstad, is one of the most vulnerable areas in the nation, sinking further as habitation stops the sedimentation process naturally raising the land. 

No nation is fighting as hard against the threat of rising sea levels as The Netherlands, it’s no stretch to say the very future of the country depends on meeting the challenge. All the Dutch efforts may not be enough, but if the Dutch can manage to save themselves, they just may manage to save us all.

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