How the Dutch are Creating “Room for the River”

The 2.3 billion dollar project fighting rising sea levels in the Netherlands.

 View of Rotterdam at sunset. Image credit: ZOOM.NL

View of Rotterdam at sunset. Image credit: ZOOM.NL

One third of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Thus, the presence - and threat - of water has been a central part of Dutch culture since the first medieval farmers built dams and levees to control it. Now, a thousand years later, water technology in the Netherlands has evolved to pursue a goal that seems counterintuitive. To control water, and keep their citizens safe from it, the Dutch are in the midst of a 2.3 billion dollar project to let the water in.

The project is aptly called Room for the River—a national aim focussed on widening rivers, creating lakes, plazas, garages—all of which can function as public space but also provide somewhere for the water to go when lakes and rivers spill over. Part of the national shift in thought was due to massive amounts of flooding in the 1990s which forced many people to leave their homes. According to Harold van Waveren, a senior government advisor, the floods “were a wake-up call to give back to the rivers some of the room we had taken.”

In recent years, as cities such as New York and Miami struggle to find ways to protect their billion dollar real estate from rising sea levels, Dutch water engineering has become something of a national export —the Dutch equivalent of Swiss chocolate, or German cars.

“You can say we are marketing our expertise,” Dutch water expert Henk Ovink told the New York Times, “but thousands of people die every year because of rising water, and the world is failing collectively to deal with the crisis, losing money and lives.” He is happy to share his country’s pragmatic solution that views rising sea levels as an opportunity for environmental and social growth: a solution that features neither denial nor barrier building.

 Dak Park, the largest rooftop garden in the Netherlands absorbs rain and CO2. Image Credit: dakparkrotterdam.nl

Dak Park, the largest rooftop garden in the Netherlands absorbs rain and CO2. Image Credit: dakparkrotterdam.nl

The Room for the River project is most visible in Rotterdam, the gritty city of the 70’s and 80’s that has reinvented itself as a hotbed of modern architecture, design, and business. Rotterdam is now home to innovative structures such as underground parking garages, plazas, and basketball courts that can double as retention ponds during a flood. A few miles outside the city in an area 20 feet below sea level, the project funded a new rowing course which can also hold water in emergencies. The course is part of the Eendragtspolder—an area of reclaimed rivers that doubles as a popular spot for biking, swimming, and community events. The area is also a river basin for the Rotte river and is expected to protect communities when the Rhine overflows—an anticipated 1 in 10 years event. The Eendragtspolder project represents the heart of the Room for the River project: pairing environmental reform with social reform. It’s what Mr. Molenaar, Rotterdam climate chief calls “investing in resilience.”

 State of the art rowing course in the Eendragtspolder area doubles as water storage during extreme flooding. Image Credit: Willem Alexander Baan

State of the art rowing course in the Eendragtspolder area doubles as water storage during extreme flooding. Image Credit: Willem Alexander Baan

It seems the United States, with its plans to build an colossal wall around lower Manhattan, has a lot to learn from the Dutch perspective. Unlike the Dutch water parks that serve as protection as well as social spaces, the fortress-like walls being erected along Florida’s coast and the plans for a wall around lower Manhattan will do little to protect from a storm and less for the quality of life of those surrounding it. Unlike water parks, walls separate rather than unite; in a storm they decide who is protected—who gets to live, and who doesn’t. In the best case, they only buy a city a couple of years before the sea rises higher and the barriers built become inconsequential.

“We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” says Harold van Waveren, senior government advisor. “We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps and public spaces.”


 

 

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked as a volunteer in Guatemala City and is passionate about travel and social justice. She plans to continue traveling wherever life may take her.

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