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Re-thinking water to adapt to a changing climate in the Netherlands

  • Re-thinking water to adapt to changing climate in the Netherlands

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The Netherlands is known for its engineering to keep water out and allow farms and communities to thrive on dry land, despite about one third of the country being below sea level. An article in The New York Times takes a look at how the country is re-engineering itself to adapt to a changing climate, a huge challenge even for a wealthy country.

Last summer the Dutch government declared a national water shortage, following a dry and hot summer in Europe. Dry conditions were due to increased evaporation and very low flows in rivers coming from abroad. The Rhine River, fed by Alpine snowmelt, provides much of the fresh water in the country and is a major waterway. In August, low water levels in the Rhine hindered navigation for many vessels at full capacity.

The Minister of Infrastructure and Water Management Mark Harbers said water shortages we having a negative impact particularly on shipping and agriculture. Despite the water shortages, the government contemplated but dismissed implementing an extra tax on heavy water users for the moment being.

Urban planners, farmers and researchers are using different strategies help retain water and store it to tackle drought. Cities are removing paved surfaces to expose permeable soil, an idea that has led to a competition between cities to remove concrete tiles. Techniques are being implemented to help slow down water and let it infiltrate into the soil, such as carving undulations on grass-covered areas, or adding bends to streams.

Dutch farmers, who for centuries were used to remove water from waterlogged ground, are now having to adopt methods such as drop irrigation to help conserve water. The country is a major exporter of farm products, but current concerns about water and energy shortages have led to a debate on the sustainability of producing so many tulips, cheese, meat, fruits and vegetables.

Dunea, a drinking water provider serving 1.3 million people, is exploring the possibility of treating brackish water found under coastal sand dunes. It is an energy-intensive option, but so are other alternatives such as transporting water over long distances.

A warmer climate also threatens the Netherlands endless battle against rising seas. Because of low flows in the Rhine and other rivers ending in the North Sea, seawater is allowed to travel further up rivers, threatening water supplies. Saltwater moving up freshwater courses is also a concern at the Port of Rotterdam, so much that closing it off with locks, as was done with the Port of Amsterdam may be an option in the future. The solution is only partial; last summer, due to the drought, there were restrictions on the time the locks in Amsterdam remained open to try to limit saltwater intrusion.

A more drastic plan has been put forward, which involves building a large sand dike off the coast, to protect the country from the rising sea for the coming centuries. Its simple form would stretch 160 kilometres along the Dutch coast, whereas a larger version would run for 1,100 kilometres from Calais in France to Gothenburg in Sweden.

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