Just downstream from the Dutch Port of Rotterdam, a storm-surge barrier waits for the seas to rise. Twin latticework arms, each as long as the Eiffel Tower and twice as heavy, stand ready to swing together to shield the city from the wind-whipped waves. Together, they form one of the longest moving structures in the world.
The Maeslant Barrier, or Maeslantkering, is the culmination of an effort initiated in the wake of a 1953 flood, when a storm surge overwhelmed the country's dikes and killed 1,800 people. Completed in 1997, the $7.5 billion Delta Works a series of dams, dikes, locks and gates was designed to put a permanent end to flooding in a country where two-thirds of the population lives below sea level. "The general idea was that water would never be a threat to the Netherlands again," says Tineke Huizinga, Vice Minister for Transport, Public Works and Water Management.
But even as the great barrier was being tested, it was becoming clear that climate change would one day make the effort obsolete. In 1995 and '98, several rivers burst their banks, forcing mass evacuations. Then, in 2005, the country watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina shattered New Orleans. "We saw what could happen," says Eric Boessenkool, an adviser for international affairs at Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch equivalent of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "And it really changed our mind-set."
Rising water levels are a problem not just for the Netherlands; they are one of the problems that will be addressed by the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, or Cop15, next month. The Maldives, an island nation, is slipping beneath the waves, and countries from Bangladesh to the U.S. are confronting littoral issues that result from a warming climate.
Dutch law mandates that the country's most densely populated regions be protected from the extremes of a 1-in-10,000-years storm. But as the emissions from our cars, factories and power plants have warmed the world, safety has become a moving target. Last year a government-commissioned report estimated that the level of the North Sea would rise between 0.65 m and 1.5 m by the end of the century. It warned that the country's rivers would swell dangerously and that the need for action was "urgent." "Add an extra meter to the level of the sea, and this barrier can stand it," says Alwin Nijhuis, head of communications for the Maeslantkering. "But more than that ... "
The Netherlands, which has wrestled with the ocean for centuries, is the ideal lab for finding solutions to the risks of global warming. A saying there boasts that "God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands." Early farmers built up hills on which to take refuge from periodic floods, then gradually extended these into dikes that protected entire regions. In the medieval era, monks sectioned off patches of swamp and drained them. The trademark windmills powered the pumps. Construction reached a peak in the past century when the erection of a 32-km dike along a North Sea inlet transformed a shallow sea into a freshwater lake, large tracts of which were drained dry and built on. By 1986 an entire new province had been seized from the waves.
There's a growing recognition, though, that the age-old approach to flooding taller dikes, stronger pumps and more storm gates may have to give way to embracing the water. Upstream from Rotterdam, for instance, dredgers are pulling up infill from the 1930s, when the Meuse River was straightened for ship traffic. The river's old course will become a crescent-shaped inlet and nature reserve, ready to absorb the floodwaters when they arrive, helping, along with other projects, to lower water levels by 75 cm.