“Water Managers Were the First Rulers of the Land”

June 28, 2017

Two recent, and contrasting, articles recently caught my attention. One, a BBC piece called “Miami’s Fight Against Rising Seas,” focuses not just on still-in-the-future possibilities of different sea level rise scenarios, but on what’s already taking place in Florida with scary frequency: flooded basements, pools of water in parking lots and on streets that used to be dry, expensive homes with water creeping closer to the front doors.

The other is a New York Times article on how the Netherlands deals with the encroaching ocean. The process is not something new there, prompted by predictions of what might happen; the Dutch, throughout their history, have known little else. A great deal of the country lies below sea level. One Rotterdam city official notes, “Water managers were the first rulers of the land. Designing the city to deal with water was the first task of survival here and it remains our defining job.” Rising sea levels will increase the tides and storm surges, but far from being panicked at the prospect, the Dutch are viewing it in some ways as a business opportunity.

Where many American coastal cities are looking to build barriers such as floodgates or sea walls to hold back the water, the Netherlands’ philosophy is to let the water in: “to live with the water, rather than struggle to defeat it.” To accommodate the inevitable floods and storm surges, for example, Dutch cities like Rotterdam have extensive plazas, parks, and fields that are used for recreation but are actually designed to collect water when needed. Many US cities do something similar, but on a smaller scale, with dry ponds that serve as parks or soccer fields for much of the year but collect water during large storms.  

To be sure, the Netherlands also invests in barriers, such as the massive Maeslantkering, a floodgate built 20 years ago to protect the Port of Rotterdam, one of Europe’s busiest ports. (The NYT article has a very clear diagram showing how it works.) It has never actually been used, only tested, but nevertheless plans are underway to add to its height.

A Dutch government advisor quoted in the article notes, “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.”

Meanwhile, officials from coastal cities in the US, Indonesia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and other countries regularly seek out Dutch expertise. “Like cheese in France or cars in Germany, climate change is a business in the Netherlands,” the article notes.

Florida, like the Netherlands, is mostly flat and has very low elevation (although most of it, at least, is a few feet above sea level; the state’s average elevation is about 6 feet). Officials there are rethinking many options piece by piece—installing one-way valves, for example, so that outfalls can drain stormwater to the ocean but saltwater can’t come through in the other direction, which it’s more and more often inclined to do. Zoning changes in some cities are elevating roads and requiring the first floor of new buildings to be slightly raised. Integrated pumping systems are being installed. Many of the changes are incremental but will buy residents some time to deal with the larger issues.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.