Solutions to surging seas

Solutions to surging seas

Solutions to surging seas

The wind over the canal stirred up whitecaps and rattled cafe umbrellas. Rowers strained toward a finish line and spectators hugged the shore. Henk Ovink, hawkish, watched from a VIP deck, one eye on the boats, the other, as usual, on his phone. Henk is the country’s globe-trotting salesman in chief for Dutch expertise on rising water and climate change.

Like cheese in France or cars in Germany, climate change is a business in the Netherlands. Month in, month out, various delegations from different countries make the rounds in the port city of Rotterdam. They often end up hiring Dutch firms, which dominate the global market in high-tech engineering and water management.

That’s because from the first moment settlers in this small nation started pumping water to clear land for farms and houses, water has been the central, existential fact of life in the Netherlands, a daily matter of survival and national identity. No place in Europe is under greater threat than this waterlogged country on the edge of the continent. Much of the nation sits below sea level and is gradually sinking. Now climate change brings the prospect of rising tides and fiercer storms.

From a Dutch mindset, climate change is not a hypothetical or a drag on the economy, but an opportunity.  It is, in essence, to let water in, where possible, not hope to subdue Mother Nature: to live with the water, rather than struggle to defeat it. Climate adaptation, if addressed head-on and properly, ought to yield a stronger, richer state. This is the message the Dutch have been taking out into the world.

In tandem with nature

Dutch consultants advising the Bangladeshi authorities about emergency shelters and evacuation routes recently helped reduce the numbers of deaths suffered in recent floods to “hundreds instead of thousands,” according to Henk. “That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “You can say we are marketing our expertise, but thousands of people die every year because of rising waters, and the world is failing collectively to deal with the crisis, losing money and lives.”

He ticks off the latest findings: 2016 was the warmest year on record; global sea levels rose to new highs. He proudly shows off the new rowing course just outside Rotterdam, where the World Rowing Championships were staged last summer. The project is among dozens in a nationwide programme called Room for the River, which overturned centuries-old strategies of seizing territory from rivers and canals to build dams and dikes.

Levelled by bombs during World War II, Rotterdam is not quaint and touristic like Amsterdam but is industrial, down to earth and a surprisingly stylish sleeper among Europe’s cultural hubs that attracts young designers and entrepreneurs. Its tradition of openness has made it a magnet for outsiders and helped it recover from years of hardship.

Lately, the city has reinvented itself as a capital of enterprise and environmental ingenuity. It has pioneered the construction of facilities like parking garages that become emergency reservoirs, ensuring that the city can prevent sewage overflow from storms now predicted to happen every five or 10 years.

A comprehensive vision

“A smart city has to have a comprehensive, holistic vision beyond levees and gates,” as Arnoud Molenaar, the city’s climate chief, put it. “The challenge of climate adaptation is to include safety, sewers, housing, roads, emergency services. You need public awareness. You also need cyber-resilience, because the next challenge in climate safety is cyber-safety. You can’t have vulnerable systems that control your sea gates and bridges and sewers. And you need good policies, big and small. This starts with little things, like getting people to remove the concrete pavement from their gardens so the soil underneath absorbs rainwater.”

Beyond the Maeslantkering, an immense sea gate conceived decades ago to protect the port of Rotterdam, there are countless fortifications tucked across the town that protect and provide business for the town. One such is the Dakpark, a dike in a neighbourhood that borders a industrial waterfront. Not only does it hold back water, it also has a shopping centre and a park on its roof.  Rotterdam is clearly trying to cast itself as a model of inventive urbanism. A local businessman, Peter van Wingerden, envisions floating dairy farms along the waterfront. “The river is no longer just for industry,” he told me. “We need to find new uses, which keep us safe from climate change, and help the city grow and prosper.”