This week a group of academics, business leaders and city officials from Boston are in the Netherlands, looking for clues about how we might cope with climate change. Even if the world curbs its carbon dioxide emissions drastically, the climate change we’ve already set in motion is going to reshape our region.
That’s why the Dutch might be a useful example. The lessons from the Netherlands go beyond engineering expertise. City officials are going to a place where it’s second nature to live with water, and to invest in the long-term.
Peter Paul Klapwijk is driving an electric boat through a canal lined with historic windmills in Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site outside Rotterdam. Klapwijk actually lives in one of the windmills—he married a miller's daughter and learned the trade himself, although he makes a living giving tours of the iconic windmills here. Today the mills are largely for show, but they used to pump water out of the soggy lowlands that give the Netherlands its name.
The Dutch have always had to live with water, well before anyone started planning for climate change. Regional Water Boards responsible for managing flood defenses and irrigation networks are one of the oldest forms of government in the Netherlands. So, in a sense, the country was actually founded on the idea of staying dry—and the Dutch have internalized that sense of collective responsibility.
“There’s a famous Dutch proverb,” says Klapwijk, smirking through a thick beard. “Please, Lord, give us our daily bread and once every 25 years a flood. See the Water Boards, they raise taxes, and every now and then if there's a flood, people understand why they have to pay taxes.”
Today Dutch citizens pay some of the highest taxes in the world, in part to keep up flood defenses that cost the country more than a billion dollars every year. That river of cash creates work for local contractors, and reinforces a culture just as fixated on boring but crucial maintenance as it is on flashy ribbon cuttings for all the new construction.
Up the road from Kinderdijk, in the Molenwaard area, I meet Max Slimmens on top of a dike that separates rows of quaint Dutch farmhouses from a branch of the Rhine River coursing towards the North Sea. Slimmens is an engineer with the regional water authority, Rivierenland. He says they noticed this dike was starting to weaken during a routine check-up they perform every five years. Now he's overseeing a major repair project at Molenwaard.
“This dike here it was reinforced in 1985. And it has been reinforced before. And I’m very sure that within 50 years it will be reinforced again,” says Slimmens. “That’s ongoing business and we have to keep that up. If we stop that there sure can be a flood again.”
People in the Netherlands know they need flood protection, so they’re willing to sacrifice for it. But it’s not always easy.
Ronald Hendriksa is a cop who lives right next to the dike. The government wanted to demolish his house so they could pour the concrete pilings that will keep this dike intact as climate change brings more rain and rising seas.
Hendriska refused, and the government eventually negotiated a different engineering solution. Now his cozy farmhouse is surrounded by construction sites. A backhoe is idling in his front yard when I ask him if he's angry about the situation.
“We understand that it has to be done, so it has to be done. It’s not nice. It sucks,” he says, but consider the alternative. “Of course, everything is better than when your house has gone away.”
He says buying a house below sea-level never bothered him. But even when he heard the dike needed major repairs, he never even considered moving.
“No,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of faith in the Dutch dike builders.”
That’s not typical in the U.S.—private property owners trusting long-term government planning. It’s also not typical for the government to spend years negotiating these kinds of flood control projects one-on-one with locals.
The Dutch approach goes beyond planning and maintenance. Just outside Rotterdam, the Dutch operate the world’s largest movable storm surge barrier.
It’s a massive steel gate that closes off the Port of Rotterdam to guard against a storm surge of up to 10 feet.
“Big boy toy, that’s what we call it,” jokes an engineer turned tour guide here at the Maeslant storm surge barrier. His name is Peter Persoon.
There are similar “hurricane barriers” in Providence and New Bedford, but nothing on this scale exists in the U.S. Because of the layout of Boston Harbor, a giant series of gates is unlikely to work here, but there might still be a lesson about investing in long-term solutions.
“What we tell the people here in the Netherlands is, if our country is flooded the damage will be at least 700 billion Euros,” says Persoon. “If you instead spend every year 1 billion Euros, you spread the bill over 700 years. That’s I think the Dutch way. Sooner or later you have to pay!”
There are other Dutch innovations that might protect Boston from devastating storms and rising seas.
The businessmen and politicos visiting from Boston this week are going to see an expo center that floats on the Rijnhaven, a harbor in downtown Rotterdam. Now it’s the centerpiece of a neighborhood full of office towers—kind of like Boston’s Seaport district.
Hans Baggerman shows me around this “floating pavilion,” which can fit 400 people.
“It’s a working building,” he says. “It’s even less for show than you’d expect. It’s not an expo.”
Baggerman and others in Rotterdam think buildings like this could become more common as climate change forces developers to get creative.
In Amsterdam there’s a whole neighborhood of artificial islands and fancy condos that float. It’s called Ijburg.
“Amsterdam is pretty full, there’s water on every side and there’s no room to build on land,” says resident Matthias Debruyne. “So they try to be creative and use more space.”
The water his house floats on could rise a full meter before it would start to cause problems for his plumbing and electric connections. And, he says,... there are some benefits to living literally on the water—protection from sea-level rise being just one.
“In the summer when it gets hot you can swim here,” he says. “Pretty much everyone here has little sailing boats.”
Even if Boston doesn’t build on top of the water, we’re going to keep building right next to it. And the Dutch have a lesson for us here, too: sometimes it’s better to work with nature.
Every year the Dutch fight erosion by replenishing their coastline with sand. Carola van Gelder is helping the government run an experiment: What if we drop 24 million tons of sand in one spot and let the sea erode it naturally over the next 20 years?
“What we used to do traditionally is build dikes,” says van Gelder, a landscape architect. “What we do more is try to defend more with natural materials like sand.”
Her project is called the Zandmotor, and it’s not just a buffer against coastal erosion. It’s become a tourist attraction, building on the popularity of beachfront real estate outside The Hague.
“What we do is try to adapt, with multiple functions. So not only reinforce for water safety but try to combine it with living, or with recreation, nature,” she says.
Boston, too, could get multiple benefits out of building on the storm surge protections we already get from the Harbor Islands.
One more thing about learning from the Dutch. They’re innovative, but they don’t have all the answers.
“Yeah well we keep on learning and adapting, it’s not that we know it all,” says van Gelder That’s why we go abroad and look at other systems, other ways of dealing with climate change. Because we learn a lot from other countries as well and we try to adapt that to our systems.”
Other countries, including the U-S. Van Gelder says superstorm Sandy was a wake-up call for them, too. It was a reminder of their own day of reckoning—in 1953 the North Sea Flood devastated the Dutch coast and killed almost 2,000 people.
That’s the kind of disaster that the Boston delegation in Holland this week hopes we’ll never have to face.
Rising Tide: Boston Underwater is produced in partnership with The GroundTruth Project.