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A Warmer World

Dutch plan for flooding: Higher ground

Rico Gagliano Jan 29, 2008
A Warmer World

Dutch plan for flooding: Higher ground

Rico Gagliano Jan 29, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: Whether we’re able to put the brakes on global warming in time or not, it might be a good idea to start thinking about “what if?,” to have a worst case scenario, a Plan B.

Some of the most vulnerable places in the world already do. The Netherlands is one of them.

60 percent of the Dutch population lives below sea level. Dikes and pumps let ’em do that, but global warming’s making it harder to keep up.

Today in our series “Plan B” about how we’re adapting to global warming, Rico Gagliano explains how a new kind of water defense is changing the Dutch landscape and the way some farmers do business.

Rico Gagliano: Arnaud Reinen is a disaster official in the Dutch province of Brabant. He was on the job in 1995 when torrential rain nearly caused two rivers in Holland to flood.

Arnaud Reinen: Some 100,000 people were evacuated. Also farms were evacuated, so we also had to deal with tens of thousands of cows. Not pigs, happily, because that would have been another sort of disaster, but… yes.

Dutch folk tunes brim with these kind of tales. Water wreaked havoc on the Netherlands since the first settlers arrived, but for the last decade, the Dutch have had to endure unusual tidal surges in the North Sea. Freak rainfalls swelling their rivers. In their folk tunes, the Dutch usually triumph over water, but climate change may be turning the tide.

Pier Vellinga is a climate change professor at Wageningen University. He says protecting Dutch towns by building dikes higher and pumping out more water is getting expensive and it probably won’t be enough:

Pier Vellinga: Workers working in Rotterdam have their houses five meters below sea level and pumping it out puts on your household bill maybe 100 euro a year. But then, if climate changes, it starts to cost, say, like 500 euros a year.

So the Dutch government has adopted what it hopes, in the long run, is a more sustainable plan. It’s called “Room for the River,” and it boils down to this: to keep rivers from swamping towns, they’ll create other areas where rivers can safely overflow.

And this is the first one: Overdiepse. 1,400 flat acres of green grass and dairy goats.

Decades ago, it was covered in water. Then, the Dutch built two dikes and pumped out the water between them. Presto: a dry valley surrounded by a river — they call this a “polder.”

Today, Overdiepse polder is home to 16 dairy farmers. Jacques Broekmans is one of them. His neighbor, Stan Fleereckers, translates:

Stan Fleereckers (translating Jacques Broekmans): He’s living here for 30 years now. He sees that the rains are more intensive than in the past, so the rising of the river is faster and higher.

But the government’s not going to protect these farms. It plans to demolish them and use the polder as a flood plain. Broekmans says it’s a sacrifice to help the big, low-lying cities downstream.

Fleereckers (Translating): We put this polder into work to give them their dry feet.

Gagliano: So, you’re allowing your polder to be flooded so the people downstream can keep dry.

Fleereckers: Because they were so stupid to build so low.

Broekmans: [speaking Dutch]

Fleereckers (Translating): Because we give the polder, we want to get something back.

What they want is to keep farming in Overdiepse. The Netherlands is tiny after all; farmland’s hard to come by. But how can you stay and work on land that’s occasionally gonna turn into a lake? The farmers proposed a new plan — or actually, a really old plan.

Fleereckers (Translating): In the past, people living here in Holland, they were very smart: they only built their houses where the sea level would never come.

He’s talking about “terps,” man-made hills some Dutchmen lived on in the Middle Ages. Their livestock grazed below. During floods, the animals just moved up to the terps too. Broekmans and his neighbors proposed this: instead of paying them to move out of the polder, the government should build them new farms in the polder — on terps. The government agreed.

But won’t the plan leave farmers stranded when there’s a flood? I asked Annemarie Moons, a provincial vice-governor involved with the project.

Annemarie Moons: The farmer can always go away, evacuated of course, because that’s very important. And then, well, we expect that the waters will stay there for a day or three or something.

The terps will be 20 feet tall, 6 acres wide, made of soil from a local quarry, plus dredged sand piped in from the North Sea. The project also involves strengthening one of the polder’s dikes and lowering another. It won’t come dirt cheap, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to “Room for the River’s $3.2 billion budget.

Moons: This project will cost, like, 100 million euros. But Overdiepse polder is the first project to be executed and that makes it very special, because everyone is watching of course.

And not just Dutchmen are watching. With 80 percent of the world’s population living near water, climate change professor Pier Vellinga says terp technology could become a valuable export:

Vellinga: Building mounds for people to flee to during high water… it’s a relatively simple technology. We believe it will spread around and our investment in knowledge and engineering will pay back.

Which could have some Dutch businessmen once again singing in the rain.

In Noord-Brabant, the Netherlands, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: You can hear all the stories in our series “Plan B” online. Plan B’s a co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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