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In a Strategic Reversal, Dutch Embrace Floods

Interactive: Rising Temperatures, Disappearing Coastlines
Dutch water official Jos Kuypers stands in front of one of the giant doors of the Maeslant barrier.
Joe Palca, NPR
Dutch water official Jos Kuypers stands in front of one of the giant doors of the Maeslant barrier.
Under the Netherlands' new flood project, called Room for the River, flood waters will be allowed to rise over this farm.
Joe Palca, NPR
Under the Netherlands' new flood project, called Room for the River, flood waters will be allowed to rise over this farm.

Natural disasters have a way of shattering complacency. Earthquakes bring new building codes; hurricanes prompt evacuation planning. But what about a disaster that unfolds over 50 or 100 years? Sea level rise accompanying global warming is one such gradual peril, leading low-lying coastal countries to worry: How do you get people to focus on an enormous but slow-moving threat?

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That's a problem now facing Holland, forcing Dutch leaders to rethink their thousand-year strategy of fighting back the water that threatens them.

To understand the history of the Dutch battle against water, talk to Geert Mak. He's a writer by trade, but more generally he's someone who thinks deeply about topics. And he's thought a lot about the Dutch relationship with water.

Mak is every bit the urban intellectual, but he also maintains a rural hideaway in Friesland in northern Holland. That's where I caught up with him.

Climate Change's First Victim

According to Mak, Holland's many ditches and canals are not just scenery. They're a critical part of the manmade drainage system that keeps this soggy country from filling up like a bathtub. Pointing out the window of his modern farmhouse, Mak indicates the flat fields stretching off to the horizon. "This is pancake country," he says.

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When the Romans were here 2,000 years ago, they figured out that making a bit of high ground to build your house on would keep you dry when the flood waters came in. Since then, Mak says, the Dutch have constantly worked to protect themselves from high water. And yet Mak says something puzzling is now happening in the Netherlands. He says people seem to believe that only poor low-lying countries like Bangladesh are going to be affected by the sea level rise that will come with global warming.

"I am amazed all the time," he says. "Because we are a very rich Bangladesh, we are a very modern Bangladesh, we have an enormous amount of technology. But we are a kind of Bangladesh. And we are one of the first victims of the climate changes."

It's as if the Dutch have tuned out the threat climate change. The Dutch people, Mak says, "have the idea it's far away, while it is really at their door. They're sleeping. They're sleeping."

An Unheeded Warning Call

There was a time some 50 years ago when the Dutch were equally oblivious to their peril. Leave Friesland and head south to Willemstadt, not far from the North Sea, and people there will tell you about the night of Jan. 31, 1953, a night when a horrific storm awoke people to the danger at their door.

Gerry Myerman was 9 years old on that stormy evening. He remembers there was a full moon, strong winds and high tides. He and his father were walking home from a friend's house in Willemstadt late that night. They walked to the top of the dike. His father looked at his watch and looked at the level of the water. "And," Myerman says, "he said, 'You know, when that tide comes in, it's going to come over the dike.'"

If that happened, the town would be lost.

Gerry and his dad went to wake up the mayor, who woke up the city council for an emergency meeting. But what followed, Gerry remembers, was shocking.

"We sat in this room with the local notables who simply decided that this could not happen because it had not happened before. So they would not ring the church bell, they would not wake people up."

An hour or so later, the icy water did come over the dike. The dike collapsed, and the water came thundering in.

The next morning, Gerry went out with the search parties to look for survivors. Among those bodies found was his best friend, who was also 9 years old.

The flood damage was widespread. Two thousand people died, 72,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. As is typical with natural disasters, people demanded immediate action.

The government responded. It launched an overhaul of its North Sea defenses. Engineers designed new storm-surge barriers, new dams and giant steel floodgates.

The North Sea would never break through their defenses again.

A Barrier to the North Sea

The Maeslant barrier, at the Hook of Holland, is the final piece of the overhaul launched 50 years ago. It's a massive floodgate not far from where the Maas River meets the North Sea. "You can compare it with two gigantic doors," Dutch water official Jos Kuypers says. "One on the north side of the river, and one of the south side of the river."

When a storm causes the North Sea to rise, the doors will swing shut, closing off the river and keeping the water out. According to Kuypers, this will protect Rotterdam and all the small, low-lying towns nearby.

And it's easy to believe him. Standing below this giant steel structure, you get the feeling that it could withstand almost anything nature could throw at it. Even people who lived through the flood of '53 can feel safe now.

But that's a problem, Erik Boessenkool says, because "most people in the Netherlands rarely think about the fact that they are living below sea level or in a sensitive area."

Boessenkool works with the water ministry's planning office in The Hague. He says the dams and barriers that were built after the '53 flood might be adequate if it were still 1953, but today there's something more insidious to worry about. He describes this threat in six words, give or take: "Climate change, climate change and climate change."

If the Dutch people have tuned out the problem of climate change, the Dutch government has not.

And for an American journalist like me, it'sunusual to hear a government official more worried about climate change than the general public.

"One of the issues that we will have to deal with in the coming years is to create some sense of urgency," Boessenkool says. "But we don't want to stir panic."

He isn't sure how to do that, but he says it's essential because the government is changing its strategy for dealing with water, and it's a change that will make people uncomfortable.

Embracing Water

After a thousand years of trying to keep the water back, now the strategy is to let the water in.

According to climate-change models, there will be more winter rain in Europe. That will bring high water to the Meuse and Rhine rivers that flow into Holland. Instead of building even higher dikes to contain the rivers, the Dutch government has decided to lower the dikes in about 40 parcels of land, allowing them to flood when the rivers rise. This will take the pressure off existing dikes farther down river. The scheme is known as "Room for the River" project.

Rene Peusens works with the local municipal government to enact this project. Standing on Jacques Broekmans' farm, Peusens tells me that his job is to help Mr. Broekmans to relocate, because this farm is on one of the 40 parcels of land the government has designated as flood zones for the Meuse and Rhine rivers.

Is Broekmans happy? No. But Peusens says he will move. "Sometimes we don't agree about the price we have to pay for their farms, but eventually we will make a deal. I am 100 percent sure of that," he says.

Because Peusens believes, and the Dutch government believes — even Broekmans now believes — that the safety of the country depends on it.

Geert Mak says this idea of letting the water go where it wants is going to take getting used to. The Dutch are used to taming nature, he says. "But now, they have to accept retreat. And give part of the country back to the water. Because it is better. Because it is more clever."

And because climate change will force them to anyway.

Produced by Rebecca Davis.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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