Why we need to just accept rising water levels and adopt the innovative strategies of our friends in the Netherlands.The Dutch know water. For centuries, residents of the Netherlands Delta have struggled against the constant tug and thrust of rivers and sea. It's part of their identity. Water describes the landscape, defines its borders, enables the country's economic prosperity, and even structures the government (through the powerful Water Boards-two words, not to be confused). Two-thirds of the Dutch population live below sea level, amidst the mouths of four major rivers that dump into the North Sea. One city, Rotterdam, hosts the busiest port in the world. Canals and dikes and levees are as familiar as sidewalks and streetcars. Water makes the Dutch who they are.It wouldn't be a stretch to say the same about folks in New Orleans, most of whom live at or below sea level, rely on the shipping and fishing industries for work, and-need we even mention Katrina?-harbor a persistent unease about the Gulf.By essentially all climatic models, the Netherlands and the Gulf Coast will face rising sea levels, heightened storm surges, and more severe weather in coming decades. The Dutch are prepared. New Orleans-and, for that matter, the rest of the Gulf Coast, Southern Florida, the Sacramento Delta, San Francisco Bay, New York City, London, Shanghai, and anywhere else in the world where the future promises more frequent clashes between humans, infrastructure, and water-should be taking notes.The Dutch are far ahead of the curve. Back in 2005, the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende, made a landmark announcement: "The climate is changing and we should make our country climate proof." This concept of "climate proofing" was novel. No national leader had before so plainly acknowledged that regional climate change is imminent, and resiliency and adaptation are every bit as critical as mitigation.At the same time, a couple of the Netherlands' leading scientists, including Pavel Kabat, a lead author of the IPCC report who's also the Science Director and Council Chair of the Dutch National Climate Research Program, published an article in Nature titled "Climate Proofing the Netherlands," which insisted that a changing climate shouldn't be seen only as a threat (though it certainly is threatening), but also as "an opportunity for large-scale innovations."About a year ago, I saw Kabat give a staggering presentation on how the Dutch were going about this "climate proofing." He emphasized the importance of cross-sector dialogue, with factions as far flung as agriculture, fisheries, water management, insurance, energy, construction, land conservation, recreation, tourism, and academia all at the table. Every group offering its expertise, working together to prepare for a "minus 6 reality," or a future where the country would be six meters below sea level. (A couple of us in the audience couldn't help but recall America's bullheaded reliance on the Army Corp of Engineers, working alone, to keep New Orleans dry.)Together, the parties made up an official Delta Commission, charged with "keeping the Netherlands safe from flooding, while preserving its status as an attractive place to invest in, work and live." They set out to address the risks not only for this generation and the next, but for a full 200 years into the future.
Solutions have been every bit as innovative as the Commission's goals are ambitious. The biggest, um, sea change in thought is summed up best by the title of the Commission's first report, released this past December: "Working together with water." No longer would the Dutch simply fight the rivers and sea. They would, instead, as Kabat described it, "work to accommodate water as part of our development plans."One simple idea is to give water space in various ways. Take canals out of concrete culverts and canals, and buy up the adjacent land for parks or agriculture (ideally crops that appreciate the occasional flood). Keep dikes and walls in place where cities and towns and valuable infrastructure need protection, but allow the water to spread in other areas. Build ponds and reservoirs to control overflow. During normal times, these spaces make for nice parks. When there is intense rain or surge from the sea, the ducks will float a few feet higher.Another case involved farming below sea level. Flooding was inevitable, cattle would likely be lost, and the expense would be great. But the Commission calculated the carbon dioxide emissions of the cattle-grazed lands, then figured out how much carbon dioxide would be absorbed by the same space if allowed to return to its natural state. Then they convinced the farmers to cut their land in half (the dryer half) and offered them revenue from carbon permits as compensation.Elsewhere, there was a tourist resort on a particularly vulnerable stretch of coast. The conventional wisdom was to build a bunch more dikes and hope they held out the sea. Instead, they decided to, well, knock down the resort. The owners held onto the land, where the government built them a new campground. Obviously, the camp didn't generate the revenue that the nice hotels and condos had, so the owners were given a majority stake in a new inland fishery that was created just behind the old resort. Now when there's a storm surge, the campground closes for a few days (nothing's damaged or destroyed), and the fish farm is just fine. The owners make just as much off their land, and don't have to fret waiting for the next big flood.The Dutch are gearing up for more water in other ways, too-raising lakes so they drain into the North Sea at low tide, extending the shore to fend off swelling seas, and, yes, building more, taller dikes and levees in strategic spots. It's not cheap-the Dutch are spending about 1.2 billion euros a year on their climate proofing measures-but they'll tell you that's a bargain compared to the costs of not (or poorly) preparing for more water.Last month, a delegation from Louisiana and Washington, which included Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), EPA head Lisa Jackson, and New Orleans City Council president Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, went to the Netherlands. Hopefully they'll bring back some of this Dutch "give water space" strategy, and figure out how to get to work on it.Dam photo by flickr user (cc) digicla. Canal photo by Jesse Hoy.