Taming the tides
Over half of the world's population lives in coastal areas most at risk of the worst effects of climate change. ENVIRONMENT shows you how one nation has made it its specialty to tame the tides.
The deadly trail left by storm Xynthia has many in western Europe wondering what it would take to “climate-proof” their coast.
If there’s any such thing as a clear-cut answer, surely it’s to be found in the Netherlands. Ever since medieval times, much of the “low-lying land” has been reclaimed from the North Sea through an extensive and ever evolving system of dikes, barriers, levees, dams, pumps, storm surge barriers, and canals…pushing the coast out a kilometre at a time. As a result, the Netherlands’ coast line and river deltas are arguably the best-protected in the world.
This week Environment takes you to see the dual Dutch approach up close: on the one hand, engineers are working to consolidate the country’s hard-fought battle for land with a complex network of bulwarks against the sea. It’s what’s known as the Delta Works. One of its flagship projects is the 13-year-old Maeslant storm surge barrier, a gate made up of two giant arms, each nearly the size of the Eiffel tower - and twice its weight. In the event of a calamity-level storm, the barrier automatically closes off the mouth of the new waterway leading into Rotterdam - Europe’s busiest port.
But along with such mega structures, a more compromise-friendly approach is taking into account the anticipated effects of climate change and working with nature so as to create sustainable weather-buffering techniques in harmony with the elements.
Success in holding back the sea has earned the Dutch an international reputation in terms of water technology and flood protection…and has led them to export their knowledge world-wide. The Netherlands Water Partnership is an umbrella organisation set up to pool the know-how and solve global water-related challenges.
From protecting Manhattan and Venice from a catastrophic breach, to building palm tree islands in Dubai, the signature projects of climate engineering all enjoy Dutch branding.
In the Netherlands, economics is also a big part of the risk equation: the aim is always to associate reliability and cost-effectiveness. But climate-proofing doesn’t come cheap: in Benin for instance, the problem of the shrinking coastline is as much a threat to the economy as it is induced by economics: for a long time, the sand was used to mix concrete and build new houses, houses that are now disappearing under the sea...