RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Natural disasters are one thing. After an earthquake, you get a new building codes; hurricanes, evacuation planning. When a disaster takes a century to unfold - it was harder to get people who are most affected to think about it. That's a problem many low-lying countries face.
For our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR's Joe Palca went to Holland. And in the face of the enormous but slow moving threat, the Dutch government, at least, is rethinking its thousand year strategy of keeping all the water out.
JOE PALCA: To understand the history of the Dutch battle against water, a great person to track down is Geert Mak. He's a writer by trade, but he's one of these guys who think deeply about topics. And he's thought a lot about the Dutch relationship with water.
Mr. GEERT MAK (Writer): You see, everywhere here ditches and small old canals.
PALCA: Mak is every bit the urban intellectual. But he also maintains a rural hideaway in Friesland in the north of Holland. That's where I caught up with him. The 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. Mak points out the window of his modern farmhouse at the flat field stretching off to the horizon.
Mr. MAK: This is the pancake country. But way, you look well, you see a very small hills - they call it terrapin.
PALCA: When the Romans were here 2000 years ago, they figured out that making a bit of high ground to build your house on would keep you dry when the floodwaters came in. Beating back the ocean, draining lakes and turning them into farmland, Mak says the Dutch have always worked aggressively to protect themselves from high water. And yet, now, Mak says something puzzling is happening in the Netherlands. 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.
Mr. MAK: I'm amazed all the time because we are a very rich Bangladesh, we are a very modern Bangladesh, but we are a kind of Bangladesh. And we are one of the first victims of the climate changes.
PALCA: It's as if the Dutch have tuned out the threat of climate change.
Mr. MAK: This whole problem with water, with weather, with storm, this climate change, they have the idea it is far away while it is really - it is at your door. They're sleeping. They're sleeping.
PALCA: There was a time some 50 years ago when the Dutch were equally oblivious to their peril. Leave Friesland and head south to a town like Willemstad, not far from the North Sea, and people will tell you about the night of January 31st, 1953 - a night when a horrific storm awoke people to the danger at their door.
Mr. GERRY MEYERMAN(ph): It was a weekend evening and full moon, very strong winds from the northwest, high tides.
PALCA: That's Gerry Meyerman. He was nine years old on that stormy evening. He was living Willemstad. He and his father were walking from a friend's house late that night. They walked to the top of the dike. His father looked at his watch, looked at the level of the water...
Mr. MEYERMAN: And he said, you know, when that tide comes in, it's going to come over to the dike.
PALCA: 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.
Mr. MEYERMAN: We sat in this room with the local notables who simply decided that this could not happen because it had not happened before. And so they would not ring the church bell, they would not wake people up.
PALCA: 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.
Mr. MEYERMAN: And we found my best friend and his family. And basically, we're alerted by his dog who recognized me and came running over, and we found his body, he was also nine years old.
PALCA: The flood damage was widespread. Two thousand people died, 72,000 homes 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 flood gates. The North Sea would never break through their defenses again.
Mr. JOS KUYPERS (Dutch Water Ministry): We are here at the Maeslant Barrier in Hoek van Holland.
PALCA: Jos Kuypers is with the Dutch Water Ministry. Maeslant Barrier is the final piece of that overhaul launch 50 years ago. It's a massive flood gate not far from where the Maas River meets the North Sea.
Mr. KUYPERS: You can compare it with two gigantic doors, one on the north side of the river, and one on the south side of the river.
PALCA: When a storm causes the North Sea to rise, the doors will swing shut.
Mr. KUYPERS: And then they close off the whole river and keep the high tides out.
PALCA: Kuypers says 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.
Mr. ERIK BOESSENKOOL (Dutch Water Ministry): Most people in the Netherlands rarely think about the fact that they are living below sea level, or in a sensitive area.
PALCA: Erik Boessenkool is 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, which he describes in six words, give or take.
Mr. BOESSENKOOL: Climate change, climate change and climate change.
PALCA: 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's, well, unusual to hear a government official more worried about climate change than the general public.
Mr. BOESSENKOOL: One of the issues which we will have to deal with in the coming years is to have - create some type of sense of urgency. But we don't want to stir a panic.
PALCA: But how do you do that? Boessenkool isn't sure. But he says doing it is essential because the government is changing its strategy for dealing with water, and it's a change that will make people uncomfortable. After a thousand years of trying to keep the water back, now the strategy is to let the water in. That's the thinking behind a project called Room for the River.
Mr. RENE PEUSENS (Resident): We are on the farm of Mr. Jacques Broekmans near the Meuse River.
PALCA: Rene Peusens is standing next to the Broekman dairy barn. He's an official with the local municipal government. His job is to help Mr. Broekmans to relocate because this farm is on one of the 40 parcels of land the government ahs designated as flood zones for the Meuse and Rhine Rivers. Is Mr. Broekman happy? No. But Peusens says he will move.
Mr. PEUSENS: Sometimes, we don't agree about the price we have to pay for their farms, but eventually we will make a deal. I am sure of that.
PALCA: Because Peusens believes, and the Dutch government believes, even Mr. Broekman 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 some getting used to.
Mr. MAK: The Dutch are used to tame the nature, always to win. But now, they have to accept retreat and to give parts of the country back to the water because it's better and because it's more clever.
PALCA: And because climate change will force them to anyway.
Joe Palca, NPR News.