The lowest point in western Europe is 6.74 meters below sea level and falling. It lies in a boggy area of decomposing peat outside the cheese mecca of Gouda, the Netherlands, and is identified by a seven-meter marker plunked into a brackish pool at the entrance to the Van Vliet truck dealership. (The dealership’s owner erected the marker, taking a little license with the facts; the actual low spot is a few hundred meters away.) The Fodor’s travel guide does not mention this corner of Holland, but it’s a focal point for the question of how to plan for the risks and realities of climate change.
That’s because the town of Gouda is considering whether to erect 4,000 houses–some of which might float–just two kilometers from this continental nadir. Subdivisions may rise on portions of the sparsely developed farmland near the truck dealership, a 50-square-kilometer area surrounded by dikes and a canal. Such reclaimed lowlands are called polders; they’re kept dry by pump houses that suck away rainwater and groundwater seepage. The Dutch have always built on polders, but doing so now, as flood risks rise across the country, will require new approaches that could get an early test in this particularly low region, called the southwest polder or Zuidplaspolder. “It sounds, sometimes, somewhat illogical,” concedes Marco van Steekelenburg, an urban planner with the regional province of South Holland, who took me to the site. “But that is what we have to investigate: how illogical it is. We have been given a challenge: can we find solutions which are climate-proof?”
The country faces ominous trends as global temperatures rise. Already, 55 percent of the Netherlands’ land area is below sea level, protected by a vast system of seawalls, storm-surge barriers, and thousands of dikes that crisscross the countryside. Dutch scientists say sea levels in the region will rise between 25 and 85 centimeters (10 and 33 inches) this century. In addition, weather worldwide is expected to become more extreme, on average. This means a higher likelihood of flooding along the Rhine and other rivers, and a greater risk of droughts. All the while, Dutch land will continue to sink–at a rate of 0.2 centimeters annually in some areas–as the peat soil underlying much of it decomposes, exposed to air by Dutch drainage efforts.
Now, in an effort being watched around the world, the Dutch government and several prominent research institutions are trying to figure out how to adapt a whole country to the realities of climate change. The Zuidplaspolder is one of several regions under consideration for developments that float–or can float, or at least are flood resistant. Apart from one well-hyped residential demonstration project elsewhere in the country, though, no actual construction has yet begun. Behind the scenes, the Dutch are taking a hard look at their growing vulnerabilities, conducting new analyses and running computer simulations. The researchers hope to submit a plan for adapting to climate change to the Dutch parliament this fall and to take action on it by next year.
Water world: Prototype “amphibious” houses shown here flank a marina in rural Maasbommel. One such house (above) can rise four meters, guided by pilings. Similar concepts await implementation until a national climate adaptation plan is complete.
Credit: Siebe Swart