Dutch re-examine flood protection

Climate change, Katrina prompt new tactics


AALSMEER, Netherlands -- When you land at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, one of the busiest in Europe, it is easy to forget that the runways are 15 feet below sea level.

But the Dutch never forget. They know that a third of their country's land mass lies below sea level and that another third is so low it would be regularly inundated without the extensive network of dikes and dams that tame the floodwaters.

"If we were not good at flood protection, the Netherlands would not exist," said Jos Kuijpers, a senior engineer with the government agency responsible for water management and flood control policy.

Most of the Netherlands' 16 million inhabitants live on land reclaimed from the sea. When the levees in New Orleans were breached and the city filled with water last year, it sent a collective shudder through this nation, which depends on 2,300 miles of primary barriers and nearly 9,000 miles of secondary barriers to prevent a catastrophe.

Dutch authorities are confident that the flood barriers protecting the Netherlands' major urban areas are up to the task. But after watching Hurricane Katrina play out, they are reviewing their emergency evacuation plans.

In the 1990s, climate change and increased rainfall in Europe flooded the Rhine and Meuse Rivers, which form the delta upon which Rotterdam sits. The region narrowly escaped catastrophic flooding in 1993 and 1995.

The close calls prodded rethinking. "You can go on making the dikes higher and higher ... but if they fail, the effect is going to be much worse," Kuijpers said.

The new approach lowers dikes and moves them back from the rivers to create wider flood plains. It's expensive, but it recognizes that "our capacity to regulate water has its limits," Kuijpers said.

Dutch engineers have started to shift from large dams and dikes to soft barriers that cede some land back to the seas.

"We need to step back and give the rivers, estuaries and coast more room to evolve," said a Dutch government study.

"We have to switch from defense to offense, from fighting against the water to learning to live with it," said Koen Olthuis, an architect who specializes in houses, multiunit apartments and communities that float.

"It's going a little slow," Olthuis, 35, said of the business. "People are a little afraid. ... But I think that in 20 years, half the houses in Holland will float."

Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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