There is no denying that the world around us is changing rapidly. Some of us choose to accept it and others choose to bury their head in the sand. No matter which action you choose the world continues to change. These changes require adaptation. Evolution happened and so far, we have survived. There is no reason to believe that we cannot survive our changing climate. How do we do it? We look at communities that have figured out how to adapt.
One of the top hazards that world faces now is flooding. Being inundated with water comes with many faces now. Hurricanes, rain bombs, sea-level rise coupled with the tidal surge, and low-capacity storm water drainage systems caused by our aging infrastructure. There are many reasons to figure out how to keep the water out. Usually it is low-income and underprivileged communities that are most vulnerable to these changes.
I cannot think of anywhere more equipped to keep water out than The Netherlands. The Dutch are currently world leaders and innovators in water management. Groups from all over the world travel to The Netherlands to study why the Dutch are so effective in their approach to water management. Roughly, 50% of the Netherlands sits just a few feet above sea level. Amsterdam in places is situated 7 feet below sea level. Another major city of The Netherlands, Rotterdam has 90% of its land below sea level. These statistics are mind blowing when you think about how they protect their infrastructure and citizens from rising seas and riverine flooding.
This area has been struggling to live with the water since the founding population arrived. Just like with any life-saving measures there was a wakeup call. The North Sea Flood of 1953 was caused by a massive storm killed just over 1,800 people, inundating homes and farms and destroying infrastructure. Soon thereafter, a commission developed a plan of action to deal with the threat of more storms. Their plan was passed as law in 1959. Under this new law a project titled Delta Works was developed. Delta Works is a system of dams, levees, locks, and other flood protection systems designed to manage and control the flow of water. If you like to deal in facts this project obliterated the idea of the 100-year storm and brought their level of protection to a 4,000-year event. In some locations protection has been increased to the 10,000-year event. How much did this project cost? Approximately $5 Billion in US currency. This seems like an exorbitant expense, but put into perspective the estimated cost of damage from Hurricane Katrina was estimated at about $108 Billion not including the toll of human suffering.
So why can’t the United States coordinate such an effective water management plan? There are several key factors here: Denial, psychology of disaster, and planned approach. I will give you some more background. If you haven’t noticed there is a lot of denial about the science of climate change (shocking!). We have no federal backing for the science and therefore there is no federal backing to an approach, effective or not.
I’m sure you are asking what does psychology have to do with a flooding disaster? I had an old professor who used to say “a disaster wasn’t a disaster until people moved in”. How true that is. In some cases weather and weather-related events are cyclical. Meaning they have occurred before in history but do you think that Hurricane Katrina would have caused $108 billion in damage if there were no large populations living in low-lying vulnerable areas? If you remove the population, you subsequently remove the housing, the vehicles, the public buildings, and the infrastructure. If there is nothing there, then there is nothing to lose. Am I suggesting that we relocate all of the esteemed citizens of New Orleans or Miami, or even Houston? Not quite….keep reading!
Let me get into our current national approach to mitigation. Well it’s less than par to be a little blunt. The approach is hugely disjointed. With the President’s retreat from the Paris Agreement we now have 50 states and our territories going at this blindly. There is no unified approach to how move forward. Every state for themselves! What I’m hinting at here is that there is no leadership to pull off a coordinated and effective approach to saving our cities and towns. In response to events like Hurricane Katrina or Super Storm Sandy we respond by building flood gates, flood walls, more levees and dams. That’s great, really it is, but we have to do more.
Let’s look a little further into some of the Dutch approach to flood mitigation. In addition to Delta Works other activities have taken place that impact the day-to-day lives of the population. Engineers and city planners have built parks and public spaces that double as emergency reservoirs for flood control. Imagine underground parking decks but when flooding is imminent, they flood the parking structure out as a water retention facility until the water can be safely pumped out into canals or streams. Public soccer parks utilized as a controlled facility for storing water. These are facilities and public locations designed to enhance everyday life but also save lives in an emergency.
Most importantly the Dutch have gotten behind a program they call “Room for the River”. This program does public outreach to change the culture of flood mitigation. It has changed the culture of taking land from the rivers and building upon it to giving the rivers more room to better manage higher water levels. At approximately 30 locations the rivers have been given room to expand but it has also enhanced the quality of the surrounding areas. A great example is in an area called Eendragtspolder. It is a 22-acre site of reclaimed fields and canals used to collect floodwater. It has been enhanced with bike paths and spaces for water sports. The area sits 20 feet below sea level and is used as an overflow basin when the nearby river floods. They have hosted a World Rowing Championship at this facility.
So let me bounce back to moving people away from these vulnerable areas. I am in no way saying that we should just evacuate a place like New Orleans or Miami and just leave it to be reclaimed by nature. What I am suggesting is that we use a coordinated federal, state, and local approach to strategically retreat some homes that are in areas more vulnerable to significant flooding. Maybe that means moving people from areas that flood with a depths of 15 feet but allowing people to elevate homes in areas that only flood to a depth of 5-6 feet. The goal here is not to send people running for the hills (literally) but to get behind a plan that doesn’t just throw up more levees, dams and sea walls and call you protected.
I think we could be moving in the right direction just at a snail’s pace when compared to how quickly climate change is affecting our lives. Currently the US Army Corps of Engineers has an exchange program in which they send employees to The Netherlands to learn about approaches that are working. This is an example of the teamwork that I’d like to see. If somebody or somewhere has a plan that is tried, proven and working, why can’t we learn from it? Unfortunately Climate Change doesn’t care if you are republican or democrat, rich or poor, leading or following. To continue to survive and carry this world on for our children we are going to have to work together. I hope that’s not a lesson learned to late.