By Annette Birschel
The country is currently carrying out a massive dike reinforcement programme. At a cost of some 7.4 billion euros (about 9 billion US dollars), more than 1,100 kilometres of dikes and about 500 locks are being modernised to meet the highest safety standards by 2028.
Making up the Netherlands’ largest flood defence system are the 13 Delta Works: three locks, six dams and four storm surge barriers.
The largest and most famous of the Delta Works is the 9-kilometre-long Oosterschelde (Eastern Scheldt) storm surge barrier, which seals off the former estuary when the water level is predicted to rise to more than 3 metres above Normal Amsterdam Peil.
A press of a button lowers all 62 sluice gates – roughly 42 metres wide, 6- to 12-metres high and weighing between 260 and 480 tons.
Tourists from around the globe marvel at the structure, as if it’s the Eighth Wonder of the World. For many, it’s steel-and-concrete proof the Dutch have managed to bring the elements under control.
In 2013, the International Federation of Engineers voted the Delta Works the world’s most prestigious hydraulic engineering projects. Completed in 1997, the project was begun the year after the Great Flood of 1953, the country’s worst natural disaster in modern times.
In early January 2018, a severe storm caused water levels to rise all along the coast, and for the first time ever, all five of the Netherlands’ storm surge barriers were closed on the same day.
It was an important test for Dutch water management authorities, and the flood defences performed flawlessly.
However, a false sense of security could prove disastrous.
The giant hydraulic structures no longer provide adequate protection, claims Tanja Klip-Martin, chairwoman of the water board responsible for the central Dutch provinces of Gelderland and Utrecht.
“Climate change has forced us to change our thinking,” she says, warning that the Netherlands must be prepared for extremely high water in view of rising sea levels, increasingly severe storms and more frequent rain that are predicted as a result of climate change.
If the dikes and dams in the west don’t hold, the North Sea would flood the entire metropolitan area from Rotterdam to Amsterdam.
Two-thirds of the country is endangered. In the east and south, there’s an ever-present risk of flooding from the major rivers Rhine, Waal and Meuse.
Thanks to their elaborate flood control system, the Dutch have come to regard dry feet as pretty much a given – like the mayo on their beloved chips. But the rising North Sea is threatening the coast, and the rivers flowing in from Germany often carry high water from heavy rains and snowmelt, threatening the region near Rotterdam.
Climate scientists hadn’t expected the high amount of rain that fell in 2016 until around 2040.
The Netherlands’ dikes, drainage ditches, canals and pumping stations are no longer sufficient, remarks Henk Ovink, the country’s special envoy for international water affairs. “We’ve got to adapt to climate change,” he says, with “we” including the Dutch economy as well as urban and landscape planners. “We need tailor-made solutions.”
Even the iconic Afsluitdijk (Enclosure Dam), a 32-kilometre-long causeway that has been protecting the Dutch coast all the way to Amsterdam for more than 80 years, doesn’t meet current requirements to cope with the severe storms predicted by climate scientists.
Built across the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea), a former inlet of the North Sea, it will be reinforced.
Coping with climate change is a matter of survival for the Netherlands. It’s a permanent challenge that the country can’t manage alone, Ovik says. “If the world doesn’t get a grip on the climate problem, we’ll get more than just wet feet here,” Ovik warns. – DPA
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