Climate Proofing the Netherlands (and Saving Architecture)

In the last years it seems to be an agreed upon fact that sea levels are certainly on the rise due to global climate change. Over the past 100 years, the seas have been climbing approximately 1.8mm per annum. Scientists have more recently been recording a rise of approximately 3.1mm per year (over the past 15 years) indicating that this rate is increasing. This is not only due to the melting of the polar ice caps (and all their precious fresh water), but more predominantly by the thermal expansion of the sea (heating water lowers the density of its molecules, thereby increasing its surface area). In the next century, sea levels are predicted to rise between 90 and 880mm. It is estimated that there are currently three billion coastal dwellers, which is expected to rise to six billion by 2025. As sea levels continue to increase, coastal and low-lying cities (or nations), such as the Netherlands, find themselves in a precarious position. A group of engineers and ocean experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a forty-centimeter rise in the North Sea by 2025; between sixty-five centimeters and 1.3 meters by 2100; and up to 4 meters by 2200. These estimates have instigated the proactive Dutch to design pre-emptive measures of climatic defense.

The Netherlands is one of the few countries that have mastered building on the water. Largely built on reclaimed land, the Netherlands sits in a perilous location - a delta, created where the Rhine and Meuse Rivers flow into the North Sea. In 1953, a massive flood caused severe damage - killing nearly two thousand people and flooding over 150,000 hectares of land. In the aftermath of this devastation - just twenty days later - the Delta commission was born. The Delta commission was conceived to increase the safety of the Delta area of Holland without shutting down the seaways De Niuwe Waterweg and the Western Schelde (which connect to the prosperous ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp). Creating arguably the best defensive system of natural barriers, levees, dams, storm surge barricades, dunes, etc., the Delta Commission was successful at 'climate proofing' (their term for resisting flooding) the Netherlands for 1:10,000 year floods (for comparison, New Orleans is striving for 1:100 year levels by 2011). Although the risk seems low, the land below sea level in the Netherlands accounts for sixty-five percent of its GDP (approximately $450 billion per year), not to mention a population of 11 Million residents. As economics plays a large factor in 'risk' assessment, the following equation is often used to determine the viability of a ‘climate proofing’ project: Risk = (probability of failure) x (projected cost of damage)

The increased risks by future sea level changes (including the fact that climate change is also expected to promote higher precipitation in the Alps which will trickle through the rivers of Europe) have prompted the creation of the Delta Committee. Governmentally assigned, and comprise of a team of experts, the committee produced a report in 2008 that investigated how to climate-proof the Netherlands for the next century. The report proposed a 100-year mega project, which included extending the coastline and building new surge barriers while fortifying the levees. An estimated 400 square miles is to be added to the Netherlands (or seventeen 'Manhattans') over the course of the project. While the primary function of the infrastructural project is defensive in nature, it is hoped that the new construction, “interfaces with life and work, agriculture, ecology, recreation and leisure, landscape, infrastructure and energy". Although, It is difficult to find concrete details on the design (the report is still only in Dutch), it is evident that it is a serious endeavor and one worth pursuing given the populace and economics with the affected zones.

The aggressive plan comes with a high price tag - approximately 1.5 billion Euros per year for the next 100 years. Although this may at first seem absurd, we must remember that Hurricane Katrina caused an upwards of $150 USD billion of damage, not to mention the loss of life, crippled economics and tourism. Further, the Dutch are motivated to start early to reduce overall costs and potentially avoid disaster. Currently, the project is in its initial stages, but the Dutch Government has already allocated 50 million euros to the research initiative “Knowledge for Climate Proofing the Netherlands.” This organization is researching climate-proofing techniques and new international technologies. Quoted by as "what may be the most ambitious act of territorial defense in history", perhaps the next “great walls” will be to evade climate, instead of nations.

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