Global Warming and Coastal Deltas:
Is The Netherlands Europe's Bangladesh?

Michael H. Glantz
29 September
2006

Global Warming and Coastal Deltas: Is The Netherlands Europe's Bangladesh? (Notes from a Climate & Water Meeting in The Netherlands)


I attended a recent meeting in Amsterdam on climate and water. The underlying theme of the meeting related to protecting the Netherlands (also known as Holland) from the potential onslaught of the increase in sea level that is expected to result from a global warming of the atmosphere.

The meeting was billed as an attempt to link science with the application of society to address societal needs. I first thought this would be just another climate change meeting in an interesting place. The Netherlands is relying on climate science to gain a glimpse of its own future. Its leaders have no choice, because the country is situated in the delta of one of Europe's major rivers, the Rhine. Historically, it has been locked in combat with the climate system: coastal storms as well as heavy precipitation at the headwaters of its rivers.

Founded in the early 1200s, over the centuries The Netherlands has spread its settlement and economic development into marshlands. Amsterdam is also known for its canals. In fact, it prides itself on the technological prowess of its citizens for having developed intricate geo-engineering construction works of various types of barriers to the sea and innovative ways to drain moisture from waterlogged soil. In other words, they reclaimed land from the sea. Today, 70% of the country is either at or below sea level, protected from the sea by dikes and other barriers.

The blue shaded area on this map shows the part of The Netherlands that is below sea level. Another third of the country is at sea level, leving the country vulnerable to flooding.

The devastating Dutch floods in 1953 provided a wake-up call to the government. Massive flooding and associated death and destruction resulted from storm surges, heavy weather, and inadequate dike construction. I remember watching "Newsreel" film coverage of the 1953 floods in a movie theater when I was 13 years old. More than 50 years later, I can still picture the destruction wrought by the North Sea waters. Following this disaster, the Dutch government designed and put into practice the "Delta Plan," designed to protect the lowlands from similar flood events by building barriers to arrest flooding in the estuaries in the country's lands below sea level.

At the delta of the Rhine, the country is vulnerable to flooding from the Rhine and the Meuse Rivers. The government believed that the Rhine, for example, was under control as a result of channels and other engineering efforts to control river flow. It was reminded that the risk was real when the country was flooded from the land side, not the sea, in 1993 and again in 1995, causing considerable damage. Once again the country was reminded of its vulnerability to climate.

However, one could argue that the existing concern of government and Dutch citizens about global warming (sea level rise and glacial melt) was sharply increased by a climate-related disaster thousands of miles away — in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005 brought home to the Dutch government just how vulnerable it is, even with its barriers and dikes. It sees the country as a potential victim of global warming. In the past, the government led the people to feel protected and that it would be able to help them in time of flood emergencies of major magnitude. That feeling is eroding as the government has acknowledged its limited capacity to protect the country from the foreseeable consequences to low-lying areas by the effects of global warming. It is telling the people they must devise flood tactics and strategies for themselves in a situation where government help cannot be realized. That is the lesson of the Katrina debacle.

The government is embarking on attempts to climate-proof The Netherlands. This has prompted government ministries to brainstorm about future survival strategies. This is the first climate meeting I have attended (other than at official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change meetings) at which all participants agreed that global warming is real and that human activities are a causative factor as the result of fossil fuel burning (coal, oil, natural gas) and land-use practices (e.g., tropical deforestation). Scientific uncertainties did not deter participants from discussing how to climate-proof the future of The Netherlands. For the Dutch, global warming is considered too serious and too urgent to be neglected.

Because of the country's geographical location, The Netherlands is seriously designing innovative ways to climate-proof their country as best they can. They realize that the centuries-old dike system will not provide protection from sea level rise related to global warming. They have already designed tactical ways to live on water as, for example, one can see houseboats that line the canals in the city. Now they are considering how to protect their major international airport, which is built on land below sea level. One suggestion is to develop a floating runway system.

There are about 200 countries in the world with varying degrees of governmental concern about global warming. The United States government appears to be at the end of the continuum where little concern about global warming is shown. At the opposite end is The Netherlands. It has taken Hurricane Katrina more seriously than has the USA as a glimpse of a warmer world.

The government will do all in its power to protect its citizens and its territory, lest it becomes a much smaller country with millions of environmental refugees fleeing low-lying areas. In this regard, they are global leaders and are to be commended.

--Michael H. Glantz

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