At last month's Resilient Miami Beach seminar Dutch engineers and planners shared their country’s long history of dealing with flooding, what they’ve learned and where they’re headed. Since the first dike was built in 1200 they’ve developed an elaborate system of pumping, dikes, and storm barriers to protect settled land and in some cases reclaim new land. Today 70% of the country’s GDP is below sea level, and in fact the coastline isn’t seen as a liability at all, but an asset, the backbone of the country.
But disasters do happen, when massive floods have occasionally overwhelmed the infrastructure and caused destruction and loss of life. Over 1,800 people died as recently as 1953 when storm surge overtopped dikes in a large area in the south. As the experts explained, those tragedies led to a “safety first” approach which mean projects in vulnerable areas are designed for protection from 1 in 10,000 year storms. By comparison, most of our defenses in the U.S. are for 1 in 100 year storms.
Culture is thicker than water.
|Hazerswoude-Rijndijk - Groenendijkse |
Molen by Quistnix
It’s not just the engineering that matters, it’s the process.
These famous engineering successes didn’t just happen because the Dutch are smart people – they represent hard choices and negotiations about how water and land should be managed, and about spending large amounts of money to develop workable schemes that meet a variety of different and sometimes competing interests - those of coastal landowners, fishermen, shipping, and environmentalists for example. With sea level rising the stakes are even higher. So last year the country decided to devote $1 billion per year to climate adaptation, and to create a plan that involves input and action from all levels of government, the private sector, and the general public.
Obviously a great deal of unity and public support is needed for major changes. The Netherlands has a long-standing governance structure of water boards, which are elected bodies that have the power to tax and make decisions about water management within their local region. As it’s evolved over the centuries, this system has ingrained into the Dutch DNA that compromise for the sake of water management is a necessary part of life. One consultant group summed it up with a fitting African proverb-- “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.”
Even if something’s been working for 800 years, it might have to change.
Major floods in the early 1990’s caused the country to take stock of their system and make some dramatic changes to the protection approach, particularly in light of accelerated sea level rise. By holding back the water and protecting low-lying areas from flooding the Dutch had actually encouraged development in risky areas. So instead of simply enlarging dikes and waiting for the next flood, they switched approaches – to working with nature instead of against it, and accommodating water during times of flooding instead of attempting to dam it up. For example the “Room for the River” project reshapes urban areas to create wider river basins that can accommodate periodic overflow without damage to life or property. Another example is the “sand engine” which redistributes sand naturally along beaches using the ocean’s currents, instead of trucking it in and dumping it.
How might this work in Miami? Our environment is different and the techniques themselves, like the sand engine, are not necessarily directly transferable. But an approach that understands and respects natural processes seems like an idea whose time has come. Like Everglades restoration, the approach of working with nature still means a managed environment, likely an even more managed environment than ever before. It’s not a return to a state akin to the days before intensive settlement. But it does represent a more realistic understanding and appreciation of our environment than the days of hack jobs like dynamiting the Miami River rapids. And maybe by finally acknowledging the limits of our ability to change our environment, we may actually be able to see more clearly where these limits are and develop realistic, workable approaches.
To not be prepared is to give up.
You could say the Dutch are as prepared as anyone could be for sea level rise, having developed the understanding of their environment, the technologies, governance structures, and social approval around water management. Their approach is both reactive, built on their experience with past disasters, and proactive in preparing themselves for future extreme events. In South Florida we've learned from our experiences with hurricanes, but are just now developing a wider understanding of our real vulnerability to flooding. We have a window of opportunity for developing a proactive vision for dealing with sea level rise because the longer we wait, the fewer options we will have. If we don't prepare we will end up reacting to what happens with insurance rates, the real estate market, or the next big storm.
Being proactive might seem costly, but the Dutch experts emphasized that their water management projects must “add value” beyond just holding back the water. For example enormous dikes in seaside cities function as promenades on top and parking garages underneath. Widened riverbeds increase wetlands and natural beauty. In fact one study found that river restoration had 80% public approval not due to fears of flooding, but because of appreciation for the intrinsic value of the natural landscape. And outside the Netherlands, the Dutch are working in countries like Vietnam where projects sometimes represent really new opportunities to remake urban public spaces and provide advanced flood protection for the first time. The "add value" approach shows that adaptation strategies win support by addressing everyday concerns and improving quality of life.
The presentations and video from the seminars are available from the City of Miami Beach here. Especially check out:
Dutch Perspective: Protecting the Coast by Creating Natural Habitat by Marcel Stive (University of Delft) and presented by Ad Reniers (University of Miami)
Dutch Perspective: Water Governance - A Joint Approach Towards Resiliency by Pim Nijssen, Twynstra Gudde
Dutch Perspective: Resilient Flood Risk Management in Urbanized Areas by Steven Slabbers, Bosch Slabbers Landscape Architects*