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After all, if nothing is done to ease the pressure, building a taller dike magnifies the consequences of its failure. Thus, the Dutch are experimenting with surrendering turf to the water altogether, purposely flooding some areas to protect more-vulnerable zones downstream. A few bends away from the dredgers, a thin line of houses sits on the water's edge just beyond the protection of the dikes. The colorful, arch-roofed homes sit atop concrete pads but they're designed to float safely when the waters rise.
Of course, it's one thing to carve out space for water in the countryside. In an urban center like Rotterdam, it's another thing entirely. Europe's largest port and the country's industrial heart is extremely vulnerable, with some neighborhoods as much as 7 m below sea level. "It's all water here," says Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb. "We get it from four directions: the sea, the river, the rain and the groundwater."
Rotterdam is experimenting with new types of dikes, including some that contain commercial and office space. Meanwhile, the increase in precipitation and upswelling will be absorbed by temporary water storage in all new construction. Parks and playgrounds are being structured to capture floodwaters. A downtown parking garage is being fitted with a water tank beneath its entrance ramp. Retention ponds will serve as scenic elements for high-end housing. "The philosophy behind this is controlled flooding," says Arnoud Molenaar, program director for the city's climate-change department. "If you wanted to deal with the peak rainfall, you'd need sewer pipes as large as the subway."
The Dutch mastery of the interplay between land and water has created commercial opportunities. Two Netherlands-based companies control 40% of the global dredging business, including the construction of artificial islands in Dubai. California has enlisted Dutch experts to help it plan for a sea-level rise in the San Francisco Bay. In New Orleans, the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis has won more than $200 million in engineering and management contracts for the construction of a series of storm-surge gates. The company was also asked to submit a flood-protection plan for New York City, where it proposed a storm barrier that would sit behind the Verrazano Bridge, ready to defend against a direct hit from a hurricane.
Yet the secret to the Netherlands' success isn't the strength of its barriers. "It looks like science and engineering," says Piet Dircke, an urban-water-management consultant at Arcadis. "But the main lesson to learn from the Dutch is funding." The country is divided into water boards, elected bodies with the ability to levy taxes whose sole responsibility is to provide safety from the waves. First formed in the Middle Ages, the water boards are the country's oldest form of representational government and a major factor in its flood-proofing prowess. "The value of a dike is only seen when it fails," says Huizinga. "The water boards mean that there is always the money to maintain them."
That's the significance of Dutch history for the talks in Copenhagen, where the allocation of adaptation funding for the poorest countries is shaping up to be a major point of contention. While the Netherlands can afford to keep its citizens dry, countries like Bangladesh equally threatened by global warming simply can't. The World Bank has estimated an annual cost to developing countries of $75 billion to $100 billion to adapt to rising sea levels. But rich countries have been reluctant to commit the funds. In the run-up to the talks, the Dutch were among the first to stress the importance of adaptation. They, more than anybody else, should know what that will take.