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After centuries of keeping water out, the Dutch now letting it in

by Staff Writers
Werkendam, The Netherlands (AFP) Dec 12, 2007
For centuries the low-lying Netherlands has fought to reclaim land from water by creating polders. Now, with flood risk increasing thanks to climate change, it is giving the land back.

As politicians and experts from around the world gather in Bali this week to discuss climate change and the problems of projected rising sea levels and extreme weather, the Dutch are already changing the way they manage water.

The Noordwaard polder in the south-western part of the Netherlands looks like any polder: a wide, flat tract with grassland and barren fields and a few farms behind a high dike that shields it from the Merwede river.

In 2015, large parts of this polder land will be left to flood.

"When we had flooding here in 1993 and 1995, it dawned on us that the climate was changing and we needed measures to increase security," Ralph Gaastra, in charge of a project to de-polder the Noordwaard, told AFP.

"Then we started seeing that you cannot continue indefinitely to level up dikes, we needed to look at other solutions."

In the Noordwaard polder the protective outer dike will be lowered by two meters (6.5 feet) so that the area will flood when the water level in the Merwede, a tributary of the Rhine river, is too high. In addition four channels will be dug to allow water to flow over into the polder.

Although this controlled flooding means most of the arable farms and some families living in the Noordwaard will have to move, it will ease the pressure on other more populated areas and lower the risk of flooding elsewhere.

For the Netherlands, the 2006 government plan called 'Room for the river' is a big turnaround. Instead of fighting to keep the land painstakingly away from water, the decision was made in 2005 to sacrifice certain areas to keep the rest safer from floods.

"Since 1850 you see on maps that we have been taking more and more land from the rivers, 'Room for the river' is the first step in reversing that movement," Wino Aarnink, the project's manager at the Dutch ministry of Transport and Water Managment, explained.

The Netherlands has 26 percent of land below sea level but some two-thirds of the country would flood regularly without the dikes and other flood protection.

"The Netherlands is the best protected delta area in the world and our ambition is to keep it that way, but also to minimize the effects when something does go wrong because it's never 100 percent safe," Aarnink said.

The so-called "de-polderisation" of the Noordwaard is expected to achieve a 30-centimeter (12-inch) drop in water levels at nearby Gorinchem.

In the Noordwaard area there are currently 26 farms and 49 houses. Gaastra said that roughly about a third of the houses will be demolished and most of the farms will have to move elsewhere because the land will no longer be suitable for arable farming, just for keeping livestock.

"One of the reasons the Noordwaard was chosen was that the people here wanted to cooperate and it was sparsely populated. In a more built-up area we couldn't afford buying everybody out," Gaastra said.

For the whole of the 'Room for the river', the ministry calculates that some 150 people will have to be moved to protect four million inhabitants.

Although most people living close to a river agree that new protective measures must be taken, it is a typical 'not-in-my-backyard' project, Aarnink said.

"Many people in the delta area are supportive, they remember the 1995 floods when 200,000 people had to be evacuated, but once we start demolishing houses in their area it's different."

To get the public behind the new approach, the Dutch ministry for transport and water management works with inhabitants to encourage them to come up with alternative solutions. It also launched a two million-euro a year advertising campaign to promote the turnaround in water management along the coast and in the rivers.

On a special website called the "The Netherlands lives with water", the ministry is emphatic: "We have to give water space now, if we don't the water will claim the space later".

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New Study Increases Concerns About Climate Model Reliability
Rochester NY (SPX) Dec 12, 2007
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