Will the Netherlands disappear due to climate change?

Much of the Netherlands is below sea level, a problem aggravated by the effects of climate change. What will happen in the next few years?

One of the most well-known consequences of climate change is rising sea levels as a result of pole melting. This is an unstoppable process that, in the most affected areas, increases the risk of erosion and flooding, as well as complicating the access to safe drinking water.

It is estimated that about ten percent of the world’s population lives in areas less than ten metres above sea level. According to estimates in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Oceans, by 2100 and in a high-emission scenario, sea level would rise by 1.1 metres in the most vulnerable areas.

In this context, many of the world’s most populous cities could be in danger of disappearing, and there is one country that has more than enough reason to worry. As most of the Netherlands’ surface area is below sea level it places this small country at great risk. The Dutch are expert managers in hydraulic engineering, and have won the battle against the sea for centuries through a complex system of dams and canals that are also one of the hallmarks of the country.

However, until now, Dutch people have not had to deal with rising sea levels and extreme weather events of increasing intensity. Climate change adds a further difficulty to those responsible for setting up an urban development and water management plan in a country that is literally sinking. According to a digital soil map published by the Dutch Geodesy and Geo-informatics Centre in 2018, Dutch soil is sinking faster than expected due to climate change and human action. If left unchecked, the sinking could exceed 50 centimetres over the next 50 years.

“Even for a country as developed as the Netherlands, the expected rate of change in sea level and the high level of uncertainty about predictions suggest that current strategies may not be sufficient,” explains an article in the magazine Environmental Research Letters, which analyses the implications of an extreme rise in sea level for the country’s adaptation plan.

The Delta Plan

In 1953, the south-west of the Netherlands suffered a series of devastating floods, following which the government launched the Delta Plan, designed to protect itself from such events and to guarantee the necessary supply of fresh water. Initially, the programme focused on agreements on the limits of the coast and on determining the height of the dikes, but more than 60 years later, the picture has changed a lot.

As commented earlier, the sea level has risen, there are more extreme weather events and, in addition, the population has grown, with more people potentially affected. Nearly 60% of the country is at risk of ending up under water, including some of the country’s major cities and economic centres. Mitigation and adaptation to climate change must therefore be taken into account when planning.

One of the new lines of action of the Delta Plan includes the identification of the areas where the country is most vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. “Our intention is that spatial planning in the Netherlands will prepare us for the extreme climate of 2050, taking into account both floods and prolonged periods of drought and heat,” as indicated in the climate change section of the 2019 programme.

Additionally, beyond public works, the experts who update the program also recommend adaptation to climate change in the planning of new homes, taking into account these criteria in both the selection of locations, to avoid as much as possible the most flood-prone areas, such as the construction methods used.

Space for the River

Another programme put in place by the Dutch Government is the Room for the River, which, instead of limiting and channelling, set out to give more space to the river in order to manage the floods. The idea was to select locations at risk in which to return land to water’ and avoid floods with disastrous consequences.

The implementation of this project has not been easy, as many houses and farms have had to be demolished, but the Dutch are working around the clock to avoid disappearing under the waters of the North Sea.

Will these efforts be successful?

Despite all the measures put in place, there are many who wonder whether all this will only delay the inevitable. "In the long run, we should consider a controlled retreat," said Michiel van den Broeke, a polar meteorologist at the University of Utrecht, in an interview with a Dutch media outlet last year. “We are ignoring all the long-term effects, we think that adaptation will solve all our problems, and it is a misunderstanding.”

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