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Dutch and New York water experts debate how to meet the rising tide
Holland's Maeslantkering storm-surge barrier, one of the largest moving structures on earth.
Courtesy Dutch Association of Regional Water Authorities

Recent surveys reveal that fifty percent of Americans do not believe in climate change or that it can have devastating effects on their lives. Indeed, of the many catastrophes that could come to pass in Manhattan, one of the most frightening visuals— rising water levels—has long since been co-opted by Hollywood disaster movies such as When Worlds Collide (1951) and its more recent remake Deep Impact (1998). Until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the probability of severe floods seemed more alien than extraterrestrials taking over the island.

Last month, at the H2O9 Forum at Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, that shortsightedness was a constant refrain, as was the North Sea Flood of 1953. The latter is surely the most apt historical example to illustrate how regions should not wait for actual disasters to happen before taking action. A tidal surge hit the southwest of the Netherlands—where thirty to forty percent of the ground surface is located at least twenty feet under sea level—and killed 1,835 people.

Today, the Dutch believe floods are more likely than getting killed in car accidents, though that is actually not the case. The 1953 disaster resulted in the Delta Plan, an elaborate series of dams, sluices, locks, dikes, and storm-surge barriers that protect the region against one-in-ten-thousand-year floods. At the H2O9 forum, the Delta Plan and its revisions were compared with the systems approaches to flood protection in the Hudson Estuary Basin.

Malcolm Bowman, of the State University of New York, chaired a panel with Piet Dircke of Arcadis, an international design consultancy with a focus on environmental infrastructure. Bowman explained that all five New York City boroughs “as well as the New Jersey coast are subject to mediocre flood threats.” But the region is barely equipped for calamities that can happen once in a hundred years—let alone the ten-thousand-year storms of Holland. (Katrina was a one-in-four-hundred- year storm.) “It’s time New York gets started on its own plan,” Bowman later told AN.

Although the systems put in place in Holland over the past 50 years protect the lowlands, they have also drastically changed some of its ecosystems. Dircke described how the Dutch are now preparing Delta Plan II, a new systems approach incorporating the water system of the whole region while taking the environmental impact of barrier systems into better consideration. The assumption is that the first wall of defenses will be breached by the end of the century, and a second wall with a moat between them might provide a better solution than an attempt at rebuilding the original walls.

The lessons the Dutch have learned over four centuries of experience with their own unique landscape have positioned them well in warning other places—namely New York—about the importance of planning ahead. Although climate change is often incremental or too small for us to experience on a day-to-day basis, scientists monitoring water systems in the area do see changes that beg for immediate action.

According to Bowman, considering a more regional approach is a promising start: “Rather than put levees along the Hudson River for 300 miles, why not put a barrier at the Verrazzano Narrows,” he asked. “And it doesn’t have to be all dams and concrete. Building barrier beaches has worked well in the Netherlands, too.” Bowman concluded that the challenges faced by the Dutch now will be New York’s problems in less than 100 years. “And if we aren’t more prepared then, even a little 10-year storm will do devastating damage.”

A version of this article appeared in AN 10.07.2009.

David van der Leer