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Financial Times

Can the Dutch save the world from the danger of rising sea levels?

On the afternoon of January 31 1953, the sea off the Dutch coast rose so high that it attracted sightseers. Just after 6pm, national radio warned of “dangerous high water”. That was almost the only notice given. 

A telegram from the Storm Flood Warning Service went out to the 30 officials and organisations who had bothered subscribing to it, but few read it on time, recounts Kees Slager in his history De ramp (“The Disaster”).

That night, the north to north-westerly storm broke dykes in the south-western Netherlands. Piet van den Ouden, an 18-year-old in the village of Oude-Tonge, saw the water rushing through the letter box. 

As the family fled upstairs, he managed to save his parents’ false teeth. But looking out of the window, he recalled much later, “I got a terrible fright: the other side of our street was gone! The little houses had all crashed. 

“The worst moment was when I saw my oldest brother’s house further along the street collapse. Back in the attic, I told my father. And something happened that I’d never seen before: my father began to cry.”

About a tenth of Oude-Tonge’s population drowned in the flood: 305 people, including 65 on Van den Ouden’s street, though his brother miraculously survived. The village’s rickety working-class quarter collapsed almost entirely. 

Van den Ouden spent the following days recovering neighbours’ bodies, and the nights drinking himself senseless to cope, recounts Slager.

The disaster killed 1,835 people in the Netherlands, and 307 on the English east coast. Within 18 days, the Dutch government had created the “Delta Commission” to advise on preventing future floods. 

Over the next 45 years, the country spent billions building the Delta Works: a network of dams, dykes, sluices and storm barriers that is unmatched worldwide. Though most of the Netherlands is either below sea level or prone to river floods, the number of people killed by flooding since 1953 is zero.

The Dutch had a preview of history. As sea levels rise ever faster this century, more places on earth will flood. Coastal cities, such as New York, Shanghai, Miami and Jakarta, and river deltas, in Bangladesh and Vietnam, face a battle to survive. 

Can the Dutch — with their centuries of experience fighting the water — save the planet? Can they even save themselves? Or will our children have to abandon some of the world’s most densely populated places?

The Roman author Pliny the Elder, who spent time in the Low Countries in the first century AD, described “a pitiful land flooded twice a day, so that the inhabitants are forced to live in huts on self-made heights, where they warm limbs stiffened by the northern winds on a fire of dried mud”.

It took nearly two millennia, but the Dutch tamed the waters. Local water boards were set up from the 13th century to maintain the dykes. The Dutch learnt to reclaim land from the water: the so-called polders, typically flat lands, below sea level, were protected by dykes.

There were disasters — a flood in 1421 probably killed thousands of people — but gradually the Dutch worked out a system of pragmatic, unideological co-operation to protect themselves. After all, whether you were Catholic or Protestant, or a Protestant who despised rival Protestants, everyone needed dykes. 

This co-operative system became known as the poldermodel. It’s often seen as the basis for today’s Dutch politics of eternal coalition. In modern Dutch, the verb polderen has come to mean “to bring all groups together to hammer out a compromise”.

The most famous story of Dutch flood protection was probably taken from a French story, then popularised by an American. In 1865, Mary Mapes Dodge, an author who had never visited the Netherlands, published the children’s novel Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. It includes a brief and wholly implausible story of an unnamed Dutch boy who saves his country by plugging a dyke with his finger. 

The book became a bestseller, and the boy an international legend. However, the idea of an individual hero is quintessentially American. For the Dutch, the hero is always the poldermodel.

Since 1953, the Dutch have taken a zero-tolerance attitude to flooding. “Safety first,” says Peter Glas, the Delta commissioner, whose office in a Hague skyscraper (like many Dutch offices) has a sea view. “Other countries are better in disaster response — rebuild!” 

The Dutch, who in 1953 had just one helicopter of their own, tend to be in awe of nations that are good at rescuing stranded people from rooftops or flying in soldiers to clear wreckage. Instead, the Netherlands does prevention: each inhabitant is meant to have a risk of just one in 100,000 of drowning in a flood in any given year.

Dutch prevention has long been a source of much pride among officialdom. In 1986, when the Eastern Scheldt storm-surge barrier was completed, my school class in Leiden was among many bussed out for a freezing, boring outing to witness the giant piece of infrastructure. 

Most of the time, though, the Dutch public live in happy complacency about the potential risk of flooding. Their defences have worked so well, at a relatively modest annual price, that most citizens have almost forgotten about them.

The Netherlands has spread its spending on flood defences over seven centuries. About half the Delta Fund’s budget of €1.1bn for this year goes on protection against the water. Though certain Dutch far-right politicians complain about “climate hysteria”, Glas says: “I must say that all investments have been unanimously accepted by parliament.” 

Water boards can also raise local taxes to invest in flood defences, so altogether the Dutch spend about €1bn a year, or just over 0.1 per cent of gross domestic product, on what they call “dry-feet insurance”. Much of that money, as they always tell visiting foreigners, goes on maintenance. 

All this is cheaper than waiting for disaster and then rebuilding: the World Bank estimates that every dollar spent on flood defences yields returns of $7 to $10. But Bianca Nijhof, managing director of the Netherlands Water Partnership network, says: “The forward and integrated way of thinking that the Netherlands [has] is something that you don’t see anywhere else worldwide, not on that scale.”

One afternoon, Marc Walraven, an official at the ministry of infrastructure and water management, drove me out to see what he called “the Netherlands’ front door”: the Maeslantkering, a storm surge barrier at the mouth of the river flowing from Rotterdam to the sea.

I had grown up in a polder landscape 25 miles north, and it all looked familiar: canals, cows, wind, drizzle. The western Netherlands is Europe’s most densely populated landscape, and within a couple of kilometres we passed wind turbines (reducing CO2 emissions), greenhouses that grow food under heat lamps (creating emissions) and, finally, the Maeslantkering (protecting against their effects).


People in the Netherlands killed in the flood of 1953

We turned on to a dyke, passed a wet jogger and reached a locked gate with a sign saying “No entrance”. This overlooked outpost houses a majestic piece of infrastructure that is constantly visited by foreign delegations looking for a model. In the visitors’ centre, two officials proudly showed each other videos of themselves dubbed for Italian TV, each opining about flood-threatened Venice. 

Another recent visitor was George P Bush, the Texas Land Commissioner and nephew of George W, who is trying to find a way of protecting Houston without angering local climate deniers. He’s on a very 21st-century mission: to safeguard his region’s oil refineries against climate change.


People in the Netherlands killed by flooding since 1953

Though the Maeslantkering was completed in 1997, foreign visitors often find it futuristic. It consists of two metal arms, each the size of an Eiffel Tower. It’s an open door: ships sail by every few minutes, into and out of Rotterdam. 

The barrier stands ready to close when the waters rise by three metres. That level hasn’t been reached since its construction, though Walraven is hoping it might be one day. “Not just a little bit,” he admits. “That’s what you do it all for.” 

His team spend their days doing maintenance, training and exercise, and carrying pagers ready for the big moment. The door needs to close just once in its lifetime to earn its money: any flood that shuts Europe’s busiest harbour, Rotterdam, could cause hundreds of billions’ worth of damage, one official told me.

But since the Maeslantkering was completed, the Netherlands has shifted tack: it has gone from battling the water to making a very Dutch compromise with it. Under the slogan “Room for the river”, it has created lakes, parks and even parking garages designed to flood when necessary so as to divert the waters from inhabited places.

Whenever a city starts thinking of protecting itself against floods, someone will say: “Bring in the Dutch.” Increasingly, the world needs their expertise.

The standard line is that if countries stick to the Paris accords, we can limit temperature rises to 1.5C or at most 2C, keeping the earth liveable. But the brutal reality is that there is no sign of that happening. To be on track to meet the accords, we would need to halve global carbon emissions by 2030. In fact, emissions have been setting new records every year. 

Each country has a selfish incentive to keep emitting, because if it cuts and other countries don’t join in, it would damage its own economy while barely slowing climate change. Petteri Taalas, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, a UN agency, said in January: “On the current path of CO2 emissions, we are heading towards a temperature increase of 3C to 5C by the end of the century.”

The only question is how high the seas will rise. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a rise of 84cm by 2100 if emissions continue on current trends, and adds that more than one metre isn’t unlikely. But the IPCC’s predictions have tended to prove over-optimistic; the phrase “faster than expected” punctuates recent climate science. 

The Dutch meteorological agency, the KNMI, calculates that sea levels might rise two metres by 2100 even if the Paris targets are met, and three metres if not. This would mean a new world, especially as many coastal cities are subsiding — Jakarta, spectacularly, by 10cm a year in places. 

“That’s an order of magnitude bigger than today’s sea-level rise,” notes Stefan Aarninkhof of the Delft University of Technology, whose world-class hydraulics engineering department trained much of the Dutch water sector. The tight links between experts in government, the private sector and universities often go back to Delft undergraduate days.

The Netherlands is the best-protected delta in the world. If the sea level rises, this will be the last delta to be evacuated 

Harold van Waveren

Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ international water envoy, studies a map of the world’s biggest cities, and remarks: “We really have a problem.” The blue dots on the map, signifying cities, are overwhelmingly on the coasts.

Most of the 1.1 billion people now living in flood-prone areas are threatened by rivers rather than seas, according to the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. 

More are migrating towards the danger, largely because river deltas and coasts are fertile, well-connected and attractive places to live. 

By 2050, the agency predicts, 70 per cent of the global population will live on 0.5 per cent of the world’s land area, much of it beside the water. Usually, as in Oude-Tonge in 1953, poor neighbourhoods face the highest risk. India, China and Bangladesh have the largest populations under threat, but the US, too, has several endangered cities. 

Along with the incentive to keep emitting, each country has an apparently contradictory yet existential incentive to protect itself from flooding. How will they do it?

Glas drops two thick volumes on his table: Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100. Like Vietnam’s Delta Plan, it was drawn up with Dutch advice. Bangladesh resembles a Netherlands with neither wealth, strong governance, nor the 40 years of time that the Dutch took to implement their Delta Plan. Even with forward planning, it will struggle to save itself.

The US does have the resources to protect itself — incomparably more, in fact, than the Netherlands did in 1953. It also has the need. Since 2005, hurricanes, storms and floods in New Orleans, Houston, Puerto Rico and the New York area alone are estimated to have killed over 4,000 people — more than died in the attacks of 9/11, and nearly double the US death toll in Afghanistan since 2001. 

Given climate change and the rising coastal population, the problem will worsen. But so far, the US appears structurally ill-equipped to handle it. Whereas the Dutch poldermodel evolved to fight the water, the American system emphatically didn’t.

Ovink witnessed this first-hand. In October 2012, he tracked Hurricane Sandy on his iPad as it killed 233 people in eight countries, and caused nearly $70bn in damage, culminating in New York. 

Soon afterwards, Shaun Donovan, the US secretary of housing and urban development, made a study tour of the Dutch water defences. Ovink took him around and, after saying goodbye, wrote him an email: “Dear Shaun, I think Hurricane Sandy can be a game changer for the United States. If you agree, I’d love to work with you. I hope I’m not being too forward.” Donovan replied as his plane landed in Washington, DC: “You’re being just forward enough.”

Ovink went to the US, where he became known in President Barack Obama’s White House as “Henk the water guy”. He describes his book about the experience, Too Big, as “Tintin in America”: a visiting foreigner marvels politely at American ways. Whereas the Dutch treat water as a national affair, in the US, each town or state is expected to manage its own defences. Obama tried to break through silos and put $60bn of federal money to work, but it went against the grain. The project hit trouble even before the climate-denying Trump administration took over. 

Cynthia Rosenzweig, who heads the climate impacts group at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says: “If you look at the approximately $15bn earmarked for New York City rebuilding and resiliency after Sandy, just over half of those funds had been spent as of last May.”


Year by which the world would need to halve global carbon emissions to be on track to meet the Paris accords 

And whereas the Dutch aim for prevention, the US devotes awesome energy to response: rebuilding after disasters. The way the Federal Emergency Management Agency compensates victims, Ovink discovered, is: “You may build back, but not better. Even if you know what to change, to improve, you cannot spend that money to safeguard against future disasters.” 

US government regulations aim to ensure that nobody can use this compensation to improve their home. Fema wants to focus more on prevention but this would require an overhaul of the US system. 

When Ovink met victims of Sandy at a soup kitchen in New Jersey, he discovered that they preferred their system as it is. “The people in this soup kitchen couldn’t care less about a blue-eyed bald guy from the Netherlands talking about working together, about building back innovatively, about climate change and the future.” They didn’t trust the government to do anything more than replace what they had lost. “Just give me back what I had, they say.” And so the US spends billions rebuilding structures that will be destroyed by the next storm. 

Ovink says: “Stupid infrastructure still has a business case, making us more vulnerable with every dollar we invest.” The National Flood Insurance Program has repeatedly bailed out more than 30,000 “severe repetitive loss properties”, each flooded an average of five times. 

In 2018, the NFIP was $20.5bn in debt, even after Congress had cancelled debts of $16bn the previous year. Many endangered American homes are “waterfront properties”, a category almost unknown in the Netherlands, where nobody is allowed to build on the beach.

Dutch water experts who have visited the US tend to marvel at American “Hans Brinkerism”: the notion that protection against the water is an individual duty. In Miami, there are buildings that have their own private sea walls — no matter that these will divert floods on to the neighbours. 

In Houston and other cities, says Bas Jonkman, professor of hydraulic engineering at Delft, some companies have built dykes to protect themselves. Marjolijn Haasnoot, of Delft-based research institute Deltares, saw a street in Louisiana where almost every house sat on what she recognised as a terp: a small man-made mound that the medieval Dutch used to keep their homes dry. The only house without a terp, she foresaw, “will get all the water. This would be unthinkable in the Netherlands.”

In fact, when it comes to flood defences, the contemporary US sounds remarkably like Slager’s description of the medieval Netherlands. The basic principle then was elc sinen dike: each polder took care of its own dyke, without reference to the neighbours. The richer people didn’t help out the poor. The “dyke counts” in charge of flood defences were wealthy men appointed not for their expertise but because they had made donations to the monarch. 

The disaster of 1421 was due partly to money being spent on wars instead of dykes. There was also denial of the problem: in October of that year, a month before the floods, two rival potentates agreed, probably wrongly, that the practice of salt mining was not weakening the dykes.

For all the US’s dysfunction, many American cities have now realised that they need to start thinking collectively and, possibly, even nationally. “It’s more than a local problem,” notes Jonkman. “It’s New York and Boston and Norfolk and Charlotte and New Orleans and other cities.” Several of them are considering large-scale flood defences. 

New Orleans’s total spending on flood defences after Hurricane Katrina is about $15bn, says Jonkman. That includes the rapidly built “Great Wall of Louisiana”, the $1.1bn Lake Borgne Storm Surge Barrier — but it isn’t fully adapted to future projected sea-level rises, says Rosenzweig.

Now New York is debating spending $119bn on a storm barrier. This would take 25 years to build, and critics say it underestimates future sea levels. Inevitably, Donald Trump has tweeted: “A massive 200 Billion Dollar Sea Wall, built around New York to protect it from rare storms, is a costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway. It will also look terrible. Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!”

Eric Klinenberg, director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University, who studies cities and climate change, says: “The federal government is an inconsistent partner. It has become an oppositional partner under President Trump.” 

Moreover, he adds, neighbourhood groups have stalled some post-Sandy projects: “We have become so hostile and divisive that we even pick fights with our own allies.” Because of these issues, even wealthy New York, with its vast resources of brainpower, and leaders who believe in climate change, isn’t protected from the next Sandy.

If New York cannot save itself, many lesser resourced cities won’t. That raises a chilling question: should some of them be abandoned? Ovink says: “Retaining all places in the world is impossible in the long run.”

Here and there, abandonment has already begun. Indonesia plans to move its capital from Jakarta — hit again by flooding this January — to the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. Bangladeshis are migrating every day from the country’s perennially flooded delta to the slums of the capital Dhaka. Even in England, where coasts are eroding (by an average of two metres a year in Yorkshire), certain places are becoming uninhabitable.


The year by which the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency predicts that 70 per cent of the world’s population will live on 0.5 per cent of the world’s land area, much of it beside the water

Small island development states such as Kiribati and the Maldives will probably reach that point this century, their drinking water supplies salinated by the rising seas even before the land goes under.

Klaus Jacob, geophysicist at Columbia University, questioned whether New Orleans should be rebuilt after Katrina, given the city’s growing long-term threats. Sanjay Khanna, futurist at the law firm Baker McKenzie, sketches a scenario in which Americans threatened by either floods or droughts (in cities such as Las Vegas or Los Angeles) retreat to the safe, ample freshwater supplies of the Great Lakes region.

Miami’s outlook is particularly gloomy. Much of its waterfront is protected by what looks like a waist-high garden wall. Building Dutch-style defences is an improbable outcome in low-tax Florida, and might not help anyway: the city is built on porous limestone, so it also floods from below. 

Jonkman says it’s still unknown what kind of protection might work here. Miami, officially incorporated as a city in 1896, may already be past midlife. It could thrive for a few more decades as a disposable playground for rich people with a short-term property market. When the city winds down, the main victims will be the usual victims of water disasters: the poor, who lack the resources to start again.

In New York too, says Rosenzweig, “There is beginning to be a conversation about strategic relocation.” Downtown Manhattan and Staten Island are particularly flood-prone but parts of every borough are at risk. 

Jacob has proposed moving people to “higher-lying neighbourhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, to some degree in northern Manhattan”.

You would think that if anyone can withstand the future, the Dutch can. Harold van Waveren, of the ministry of infrastructure and water management, says: “The Netherlands is the best-protected delta in the world. If the sea level rises, this will be the last delta to be evacuated.”

Yet that moment may be coming. I began my research thinking that the Dutch could save the world, but finished it doubting whether they could even save the Netherlands. In 2017, the research institute Deltares sent an informal message to government officials: studies by the KNMI and others indicate that, beyond 2050, sea-level rise might happen faster than you expect. Haasnoot of Deltares summarises the response: “Jeez, that’s intense.” The state asked her to write a report.

Deltares convened a hackathon together with the government, think-tanks and universities. They came up with four possible responses to a sea-level rise of more than two metres: 1. Protect the coast by building dykes, and closing off the rivers from the sea. 2. Protect the coast but keep the rivers open. 3. Build a new coastline in the sea, to protect the existing coast. 4. “Accommodate the water”.

Broadly, the conundrum facing the Dutch can be distilled to a binary choice: should we stay or should we go? Staying would require large adjustments to the country’s land and water management. The sea will almost certainly rise by two metres and more, if not by 2100 then surely by 2300. Sealing off the rivers could put an end to Rotterdam’s status as a major harbour. 

Eventually, huge amounts of sand would be required to build high enough dunes, the dykes would become so big that they’d eat up living space, pressure from seawater would salinate farmland and thinly populated areas such as the south-west (site of the 1953 floods) would probably have to be sacrificed as holding pens for flood water. Giant pumps would be needed to push the rivers upwards into the sea. 

The Netherlands would be constantly upgrading its defences to cope with rising waters. It could build floating homes, even a floating airport, and bring back terps, but it would have to write off some of its current housing stock.


The amount New York is debating spending on a storm barrier. It would take 25 years to build

One day, much of the country may be abandoned. People might be allowed to remain in certain areas at their own risk. Dutch water experts speak, half-jokingly, of “moving to Germany and learning German”. 

In Delft, 10 miles from the sea, I wandered through streets that still looked almost as they did when Johannes Vermeer painted here 400 years ago. It’s questionable whether they’ll be here in 400 years, or perhaps even in 100. 

Alternatively, the Netherlands may have to choose between protecting either Delft or equally venerable Leiden, my hometown up the road. If it all sounds extraordinarily brutal, that may be because the Netherlands is the only country that is planning for the waters of 2100.

Haasnoot cautions: “There is still a large uncertainty about future sea-level rise. We have time to prepare, but no time to lose. We must keep our options open to adapt if necessary.”

I ask her how she feels about her own scenarios. “Personally,” she says, “I find it keeps getting closer. When I began working, in the late 1990s, climate change was the future. Now that I have small children, 2100 isn’t that far away. I hope our children will still be here then. Walking around here, you think, ‘If sea levels rise faster, it will be quite a change.’” 

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