In a Strategic Reversal, Dutch Embrace Floods The Dutch have historically gone to great lengths to keep the water out of their low-lying country. But anticipated sea-level rise from global warming is causing them to take a dramatically different approach: Let the water go where it wants.

In a Strategic Reversal, Dutch Embrace Floods

In a Strategic Reversal, Dutch Embrace Floods

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The Maeslant barrier is a massive flood gate not far from where the Maas River meets the North Sea. When a storm causes the North Sea to rise, the doors will swing shut, closing off the river and keeping the water out. Maeslant Barrier/Delta Works hide caption

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Maeslant Barrier/Delta Works

Dutch water official Jos Kuypers stands in front of one of the giant doors of the Maeslant barrier. Joe Palca, NPR hide caption

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Joe Palca, NPR

Why Climate Change Brings Flooding


A warming atmosphere also means a warming ocean. As water heats up, it expands and triggers a sea level rise around the world. By 2080, a U.N. panel predicts, this will have devastating consequences for millions of people around the world ? rich and poor alike.


Read that story.

Six months after a North Sea storm in 1953 spilled over dikes, Netherlanders return to their homes, finding streets and fields buried under mud and swamp. Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Six months after a North Sea storm in 1953 spilled over dikes, Netherlanders return to their homes, finding streets and fields buried under mud and swamp.


This picture of Gerry Meyerman, then age 9, was taken several months after the flood that devastated his town. Courtesy Gerry Meyerman hide caption

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Courtesy Gerry Meyerman

Under the Netherlands' new flood project, called Room for the River, flood waters will be allowed to rise over this farm. Joe Palca, NPR hide caption

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Joe Palca, NPR

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?

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.

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.

Related NPR Stories

With Climate Change Comes Floods

Bangladeshi women make their way through flood water at Dhakuria in Sirajgonj district on Sept. 10, 2007. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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AFP/Getty Images

The global average sea level rose at a rate of 1.8 millimeters per year between 1961 and 2003. That rate increased starting in 1993, with the sea level rising about 3.1 millimeters per year. The major contributors to the rising ocean is the expansion of water as the ocean absorbs heat from the atmosphere, and melt water from glaciers and ice caps. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

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Lindsay Mangum, NPR

The global average sea level rose at a rate of 1.8 millimeters per year between 1961 and 2003. That rate increased starting in 1993, with the sea level rising about 3.1 millimeters per year. The major contributors to the rising ocean is the expansion of water as the ocean absorbs heat from the atmosphere, and melt water from glaciers and ice caps.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Computer models taking into account fossil fuel use match the actual observed increase in global ocean temperatures. Computer models that ignored fossil fuel emissions do not match the more than half-degree increase seen in global sea temperatures. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

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Lindsay Mangum, NPR

Climate change is disturbing the delicate balancing act that people have with water. Water is critical to life — for drinking and irrigation, and as a source of food, transportation and recreation. But too much water — or water that comes at an unexpected time, or in unexpected places — can be a big problem.

As global temperatures rise, many places are threatened by flooding. A recent study looking at who is at risk shows many coastal cities could be hit hard, particularly heavily populated cities in Asia. But in terms of economic loss, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that the top 10 cities at risk are all in three industrialized countries: the United States, Japan and the Netherlands.

Warming water can cause rises in sea levels and strong storms, with the potential to impact people around the globe.

Rising Sea Levels

As global temperatures rise, oceans get warmer. And when water heats up, it expands and sea levels rise.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that from 1993 to 2003, global sea level rose about 3 millimeters each year, and approximately half of that increase is attributed to the ocean expanding as it warms.

About one-quarter of this rise is attributed to melting glaciers and ice caps. Melting from the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet combined is estimated to account for about 14 percent of observed sea level rise. If the Greenland ice sheet melted entirely, sea level would rise 20 feet around the world. But such a catastrophic melt isn't projected for thousands of years, if it happens at all. Currently there is no scientific consensus on how much of these giant ice sheets will melt, or when that might happen.

"Scientists do not understand the ice process enough for accurate predictions of Greenland and Antarctica," says Carol Auer, an oceanographer with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

It is also not known exactly how much warmer the planet will get.

"We can change this around, at least to a degree," Auer says. "It's not a disaster yet."

A sea level rise of just a few millimeters a year may seem insignificant, but Auer says that on flat land, it adds up. She says that a half-inch of vertical sea level rise translates to about three feet of land lost on a sandy open coast, due to long-term erosion. And even a slightly higher sea level can cause more dramatic tides in deltas and estuaries.

Bigger Storm Surges

Rising sea levels also make coastal areas more vulnerable to storm surges and, in turn, to flooding.

"Basically the story is because sea level rises have made everything a little higher, when a storm hits that makes for more vulnerability," Auer says. The higher sea level gives a storm surge a boost to reach further inland.

Auer points to two hurricanes of similar strength that hit the Chesapeake Bay area. The first hit in 1933. The second was Hurricane Isabel, which pummeled the East Coast in 2003.

"Isabel was far more damaging because there had been about a 20-centimeter rise in sea level," Auer says.

More Rain

The IPCC also predicts that warming tropical seas — hurricanes feed off of warm water — will likely make these storms more powerful, dumping more torrential rains on coastal areas.

A warming planet also means snowy regions become rainy. People who live near rivers could see more flash floods: Melting snow slowly trickles into rivers, but rain can dump large amounts of water all at once.

In some places, like California, where rain and snowfall patterns are already unpredictable, there are elaborate systems of dams and reservoirs to keep a steady supply of water available — and to handle flood control. As snow and rain patterns shift even more, it becomes increasingly difficult to know when to keep the reservoirs full to maintain ecosystems, recreational areas, hydropower and water supply — and when to allow them to empty and make space for flood control.

"The problem is that you have a constant tension between flood control reserve and the desire to keep (the reservoirs) full," says Jeffrey Mount, a geologist who studies flooding at the University of California at Davis. "Climate change exacerbates that pressure."

Low-Lying Areas Most at Risk

Densely populated, low-lying areas, such as large river deltas and small islands, are at the greatest risk from flooding. Many of these areas are found in Asia, such as the Ganges River Delta, the Mekong River Delta and islands in the South Pacific.

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, an international organization with 30 member countries, including the United States, recently released a report listing 10 cities that face the highest risk from flooding right now: Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta, greater New York City, Osaka-Kibe, Alexandria and New Orleans.

In its own estimates, the IPCC predicts that by 2080, millions more people will experience flooding every year due to sea level rise. If global temperature rises by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the next century, scientists estimate the sea level will rise seven to 15 inches. IPCC's worst-case scenario, which is about a 7 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature, shows a global sea level gain of 10 to 23 inches.

Poor communities will have a hard time adapting to increased flooding: They don't have the resources to build protection for their cities or to help people move. These communities also tend to rely heavily on local water and food supplies. Water may become contaminated by a major storm, and a rising sea level can contaminate wells. Salinity from rising sea levels also can cause serious problems for farmers.

The wealthy, too, will experience the impacts of greater flooding. "Everyone is building close to the water, building in vulnerable areas," NOAA's Auer says.

She says it is important to protect wetlands and coastal habitats that are threatened by overbuilding, because these wetlands serve as natural barriers to storm surges.

When walls are built between homes and beaches or wetlands, to protect development, they actually put the homes in more danger in the long run, Auer contends. The walls block wetlands and beaches from expanding inland, so with a wall on one side and encroaching water on the other, in the end, the wetlands disappear. Homes are then left vulnerable, right at the edge of the water, she says.

"Flooding wouldn't need to be a problem if people moved further back from the water," Auer says. Climate change, she says, is just "another nail in the coffin to preexisting problems."

Both Auer and Mount say that in the United States, people need to think carefully about where they are building, and about which areas could become flood zones in the future. They also agree that there probably won't be any major change until insurers take climate change into account and refuse to insure high-risk areas.

If that happens, "people won't build really low because it is a hassle," Auer says. "If someone wants to build really low, let the buyer beware."

Mount adds that flooding is natural and is important for ecosystems.

"Flooding is only a problem when there are people in the way," he says. And lack of planning for a changing climate makes that much more likely to be the case.