- The Netherlands, a low-lying European country with more than a quarter of its land below sea level, has been going to great lengths to protect itself from the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise and extreme weather events like heavy rain.
- But even for the Netherlands, a country with the wealth and experience to address these issues, the future remains uncertain, mainly because a range of possible scenarios could play out after 2050.
- According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a low-emissions scenario for the greenhouse gases that amplify global warming could elevate sea levels about half a meter (1.6 feet) above present levels by 2100; a higher-emissions scenario could lead to a 2-m (6.6-ft) rise by 2100 and a 5-m (16.4-ft) rise by 2150.
- Experts say that most other countries need to take the threat of sea level rise more seriously than they are, and that engineering challenges, a lack of awareness and education, sociocultural concerns, and financial constraints are hampering their preparation.
THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A misty rain blows against my face as I follow Farah Obaidullah along Scheveningen Beach in the northwest part of The Hague. Despite the wind and drizzle, the shoreline feels calm. Gray waves roll into the sand like long, deep breaths. Machines have raked the beach into a well-manicured carpet of grains and shell fragments.
But about a year ago, in February 2022, Scheveningen looked very different as Storm Eunice battered the coastline with high-speed winds and fierce waves.
“The sea was amazing — just how wild it gets and how ferocious,” says Obaidullah, who strides quickly over the beach, an old Greenpeace beanie pulled over her bobbed curls. “You don’t really want to be out near the sea at that time. But I walked outside in the aftermath of Eunice, and the sand had literally taken over the boulevard and the beach bars.”
Storm Eunice ravaged the Netherlands with winds of up to 128 kilometers per hour (80 miles per hour) and sea levels reaching 2.2 meters (7.2 feet) above their normal height. It damaged buildings, toppled trees and killed three people. But while the sand blew across the coast, the tide and storm surge never reached the town of Scheveningen’s infrastructure, thanks to interventions made a couple of decades ago in anticipation of sea level rise and extreme weather events like this.
In 2003, experts identified the Scheveningen shoreline as one of several “weak links” in the Dutch coastal defense against sea level rise. This awareness led to a $70 million reconstruction project to protect Scheveningen and the rest of The Hague, a city of half a million residents that is the seat of the Dutch government (though, curiously, not its capital) and the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, and home to the royal family. The modifications included raising Scheveningen’s dike to be 10 m (33 ft) over NAP, for Normaal Amsterdams Peil, meaning normal water level in Amsterdam. The NAP is the baseline for measuring seawater levels all across the Netherlands, and is approximately equal to the average level of the North Sea. Additionally, workers installed nearly 2.4 million cubic meters (85 million cubic feet) of dredged sand on the beach to push the ocean back 50 m (164 ft) from the shoreline and to raise the sandbank 4.5 m (15 ft) above NAP.
Obaidullah, who’s lived in the area on and off since 1980, remembers a different Scheveningen from her childhood. Before our beach walk, she opened a photo album on her dining table and showed me pictures of the old shoreline. Back then, the tides came up to the promenade.
“I can see very clearly that the beach is much narrower than it is today,” said Obaidullah, an independent oceans campaigner and founding director of the nonprofit Women4Oceans. “The water is pretty much coming up until the boulevard.”
Out on the shoreline, I see traces of the past. As Obaidullah and I ascend concrete steps from the beach to the boulevard, she points out how the railing doesn’t end with the bottom step but disappears into the sand.
“I remember looking up at the stairs going, ‘Oh, I have to climb all the stairs,’” she says, recalling her childhood. “I’m pretty sure there were two or three sets. Now it’s just one set. And if you look at the sea now, we’re quite high above the sea because this has all been reinforced. None of this is natural.”
As I survey the artificially wide beach and the dike’s formidable height, one thing is clear: the Dutch are going to great lengths — and heights — to prepare for a future of elevated sea levels, intensified storm surges and extreme weather. But how long will the Netherlands, a low-lying country with more than a quarter of its land below sea level, be able to hold back the water if climate change accelerates along a high-emissions scenario?
And what about the rest of the world? Are other countries as prepared for the future as the Netherlands? Absolutely not, some experts say.
‘There’s a broad range of scenarios’
For about 6,000 years, sea levels stayed mostly stable, enabling humans to set up coastal communities across the world. But as global temperatures have steadily risen in response to human-induced climate change, glaciers and ice sheets have melted, releasing monstrous amounts of water into the ocean. One study found that melting Arctic ice alone discharges about 14,000 tons of water every second of every day. While all this melting ice will raise levels everywhere, it won’t happen evenly. Nations furthest from the melting ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica will ultimately see the highest sea level rise due to ocean dynamics and Earth’s gravity.
Scientists estimate that global sea levels have already risen by 21-24 centimeters (8-9 inches) since 1880, and the rate at which this is happening is speeding up. Recent data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) found that sea levels rose nearly 1 cm (0.4 in) between January 2020 and 2022, setting a new record. While scientists are sure sea levels will continue to rise, they’re less certain about how fast it will happen and when levels will reach specific points.
“There’s a broad range of scenarios, and they differ considerably,” Ferdinand Diermanse, a flood risk expert at Deltares, a Dutch institute focused on water and subsurface research, tells me on a video call. “First of all, what are we as humans going to do? Are we really going to reduce carbon dioxide output, and how does the climate respond to that? We expect an increase in temperature, but how much is also uncertain. With that increase in temperature, how will the ice sheets, especially in Antarctica and Greenland, respond?”
According to a 2021 report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a low-emissions scenario could elevate global sea levels about half a meter (1.6 ft) above present levels by 2100, while a higher-emissions scenario could lead to a 2-m (6.6-ft) rise. By 2150, sea levels could be 5 m (16.4 ft) higher than they are now. António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, recently described sea level rise as a threat multiplier that could lead to a “mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale” and increase competition for freshwater, land and other resources if society doesn’t urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Netherlands has one of lowest elevations in the world, so it will undoubtedly face many challenges if sea levels continue to mount. But at the moment, the country seems well-prepared. After all, the Dutch have long lived with the threat of flooding, and have centuries of experience countering it with ambitious infrastructure projects.
The earliest inhabitants of the Netherlands — a nation whose name literally means “low-lying country” — used an interconnected system of dikes, levees, and polders (reclaimed land protected by the dikes). The point of these interventions was to hold back the North Sea and to manage the three major rivers that form a delta in the country: the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. These water management strategies allowed the Netherlands to reclaim land from the sea, keep towns and farmland safe from flooding, and become one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
But the country’s flood management structures haven’t been fail-safe. Over the centuries, the country has experienced several disastrous floods, including a severe one in 1953 caused by a heavy storm surge from the North Sea. During that particular storm, floodwaters inundated more than 150,000 hectares (371,000 acres) of land in the Netherlands, killing nearly 1,900 people and tens of thousands of farm animals.
This flood motivated the Dutch to build a more advanced system of three locks, six dams and four storm barriers, and to replace or reinforce dikes and other structures over the following four decades. This project was known as the Delta Works, which the Rijkswaterstaat, the ministry of infrastructure and water management, oversaw between 1953 and 1997. In 2015, construction started on a fifth storm barrier, the Ramspolkering, in the country’s northeast. This network of structures can now protect the Netherlands from powerful storm surges, but the Dutch keep a close eye on the quickening of climate change and the rising seas that accompany it.
A ‘safe and livable delta’?
To address current and future flood risks, the national government set up the Delta Programme — a separate entity from the Rijkswaterstaat and the Delta Works project — in 2010 with the aim of keeping the Netherlands a “safe and livable delta.” The program formulates a strategy for mitigating flood risk and maintaining an adequate supply of fresh water. But this strategy has a time horizon of 2100 since “many investments in assets and infrastructure have a lifetime of 100 years,” Pieter Bloemen, a strategy and knowledge adviser at the Delta Programme, tells me in an emailed statement. However, he says there’s still planning beyond the end of the century to determine “what policy options might — around that time — possibly be necessary.”
Bloemen says the Delta Programme draws on science generated by experts at national universities, planning bureaus and research institutes like Deltares and the Dutch Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, many of whom contribute to IPCC reports. Using this knowledge, the Delta Programme makes its primary decisions regarding water management in the Netherlands, regularly updating and reassessing its knowledge base and decisions. Structural solutions to flood and water management currently include dams, seawalls, storm surge barriers, dikes, dunes, pumps, sluices and regular beach nourishments, which are engineered by the national government, provincial and municipal authorities, the country’s 21 district water boards, engineering firms, and other partners.
For the past decade, the Netherlands has been working to enact plans for flood safety based on a 2014 assessment by the Delta Programme that anticipated a sea level rise of up to about 1 m (3.3 ft) by 2100. These measures are expected to give everyone in the Netherlands a basic level of protection until about 2050 — but only if these measures are accelerated, according to a 2023 report published by the Delta Programme.
From 2050 onward, things will get more complicated. A recent study by researchers from the Delta Programme and Deltares, including Diermanse, looks at how an increase in the annual rise of sea levels could overtax constructions like storm barriers and pumping stations, shortening their functional life spans and making other approaches necessary. The study also looks at the different strategic choices the Netherlands may need to make in the long term. For instance, it might be necessary to retreat from rising waters by moving people, assets, and specific activities to higher ground. Another option is to accommodate the water by elevating buildings on piles and mounds and refocusing agriculture on salt-tolerant crops or fish farming. Yet another idea is to continue fortifying the existing coastline with more dikes, seawalls and dunes, or even to create an entirely new, much higher coastline.
The authors stress the importance of strategizing for the anticipated future now because of the time it takes to develop policy, prepare plans, make decisions, and implement such strategies. For example, they note that it took 45 years to complete the Delta Works after the 1953 flood, and 25 years to enact a program called Room for the River after floods in 1993 and 1995 of the Rhine and Meuse rivers.
“I have faith that we can do a lot, but I also see that it’s going to be a huge challenge if, indeed, this sea level rise will accelerate like it happens in a more pessimistic scenario,” Diermanse says. He adds the ability to keep the Netherlands safe and livable will depend on how fast sea levels rise and how we respond to it.
“Some people may say, ‘Oh, we just need to raise our levees,’” he says. “But that’s easier said than done. It’s much more budget, you need the capacity of people doing that.”
He says there will also need to be political acceptance of such measures, which may be challenging to obtain within the short time frames necessary to carry out adequate protections. “On the other hand,” he says, “once people see, ‘OK, the sea level is really rising, it’s a really big problem,’ then typically things can move faster.”
It’s not only rising sea levels that can cause issues for the Netherlands — it’s the combination of the rising sea and the rivers, says Peter Ouwendijk, member of the executive board of the Delfland Water Authority, the council responsible for water management in the municipality of Delft.
“There is a difference in water level between the rivers and the sea, and as the sea level is rising, then it’s getting difficult for us to get rid of the water,” Ouwendijk tells me over the phone. “We do the same thing we are doing on the seaside; we build river dikes in the Netherlands as well.”
Bloemen of the Delta Programme says extreme weather events brought on by climate change, such as drought and intense precipitation, will pose another challenge. The Netherlands recently experienced both: a severe drought in the summer of 2022 and an extraordinary rain event in the summer of 2021 that dumped up to 90 millimeters (3.5 in) of precipitation in the country’s Limburg province, causing widespread flooding.
“Coming to agreements with water management authorities in upstream countries like Germany, Belgium, and France on how much water can be reserved for times of too little water and what maximum river discharges [should be] in times of too much water is part of this challenge,” Bloemen says. “Intensifying precipitation events and increasing temperatures (causing urban flooding and heat stress in urban areas) require adequate measures already now.”
When asked if it’s possible for the Netherlands to fully prepare for the future, Bloemen borrowed words from Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr: “Prediction is difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
‘Like an insurance policy’
The threat of sea level rise doesn’t feel more real than when I’m standing in front of the Maeslantkering in South Holland province, one of the world’s largest storm barriers. It comprises two sailboat-shaped steel “doors,” each as long and twice as heavy as the Eiffel Tower. The barrier mostly stays open to allow vessels to travel up and down the canal linking the North Sea to Rotterdam, one of Europe’s busiest ports. But the doors will automatically close if there’s a storm surge of around 3 m (10 ft).
The day I visit, rain sprays sideways into my face and blows my umbrella inside out, forcing me inside the small visitor’s center, the Keringhuis, next to the barrier. As I peer through the wide glass window at the white-painted barrier, Jeroen Kramer, the bright-faced spokesperson for the Keringhuis, sings the barrier’s praises.
“I always tell our Dutch visitors, ‘You have to be proud because people from all over the world want to see this, and they want to know how we do it,’” Kramer says. “It’s a very special thing.”
Kramer says the barrier has only closed twice in 25 years: in 2007 and again in 2018. At both times, the water levels were just under 3 m. But even this, Kramer says, wouldn’t have been high enough to pose a substantial threat to all of Rotterdam.
As for the day of my visit, Kramer says the water levels are “normal” despite the blustery weather.
“I would almost say it’s like an insurance policy,” Kramer says of the Maeslantkering. “It’s a very safe feeling to know you have a barrier like this.”
Part of the barrier’s safety measures is stamping out the risk of malfunction. The Maeslantkering only needs three engines, but six are built into it. It also has extra pumps and a backup generator. Its computer system isn’t linked to the internet, to make it hack-proof, and a team of people can still take over if the computers fail.
In our current climate, the barrier should only close once every decade. But this could change in the future, research suggests. A sea level rise of 1 m would likely close the barrier three times a year, and a rise of up to 1.5 m (5 ft) could close it about 30 times a year.
“This barrier will be here for at least 50 or 60 years, no problem at all,” Kramer says. “But there will be a limit. If sea level rise is coming up more than 3 meters in, let’s say, 150 years … you have to think about something else. But not for now.”
The Dutch have also employed more natural solutions to flooding. For instance, in 2007, Rijkswaterstaat initiated Ruimte voor de Rivier (“Room for the River”), a program that restored the rivers’ natural capacity by widening flood plains at 30 different locations. And in 2011, government agencies sculpted an artificial peninsula — complete with a small lake among its dunes — called the Zandmotor (the “Sand Motor” or “Sand Engine”) by dredging 21.5 million m3 (759 million ft3) of sand from the North Sea and depositing it along a 2-km (1.2-mi) stretch of coastline south of The Hague.
This “mega-nourishment” project has created a buffer against sea level rise and mitigates the impacts of storm surges and coastal flooding along the Delfland coast, from the Hook of Holland to Scheveningen. It does this by working in tandem with nature — with the wind, waves and currents — to collect and redistribute sand along the coastline, creating and strengthening dunes without further human involvement. In a sense, “motoring” its own nourishment.
Arjen Luijendijk, a coastal development expert at Deltares who worked on the Zandmotor project, explains that as the dunes grow, vegetation also grows, which, in turn, enables the dunes to hold more sand. The Zandmotor’s design also avoids the need to replenish sand every few years, a common practice at other sites in the Netherlands that can be ecologically damaging, he says. Since its construction 12 years ago, the Zandmotor has had no additional sand nourishment by people.
“If you come back every four years with a new sand layer on top of the seabed … all the benthic life that has been developing since then are reset again, and some parts of it do not survive this new sand layer,” Luijendijk tells me on a video call. “But one of the hypotheses of the sand engine was, ‘OK, if we place large volumes and we don’t have to go back for maybe 30 years, what kind of new ecosystem do we get then if we do it this way?’”
A mere five years after its establishment, the Zandmotor had spawned several ecosystems, including a mudflat-like habitat occupied by Baltic clams (Macoma balthica), sand chute worms (Pygospio elegans) and mud shrimp (Corophium volutator), and a rich intertidal zone that attracted birds such as sandpipers and fish such as sole, according to a report by the organization ARK Rewilding Netherlands.
‘Protecting us in the future’
Structures like the Maeslantkering and the Zandmotor illustrate the tremendous effort, engineered and natural, that the Dutch will put into keeping their feet dry. But the future may require far more radical measures — and the responsibility to enact such changes will fall on the younger generation. Because of this, experts say it’s important to motivate children to think innovatively about water challenges.
Karen van Burg, the co-founder and coordinator at the Stichting Blauwe Lijn (“Blue Line Foundation”), an organization encouraging young people to think creatively about water issues, says it’s essential to think far into the future.
“After the disaster in 1953, everybody knew [flood management] was important,” Van Burg tells me as we sit across a table in the Keringhuis, the Maeslantkering gleaming through the window beside us. “Now it’s 70 years ago and children don’t feel the urgency that it’s going to happen again … and that’s dangerous because we have a big decline of the soil [and] the weather is constantly changing and not so predictable as it was. So that makes it more insecure.”
Van Burg says the Stichting Blauwe Lijn was inspired by Marian van Veen-Schillhorn, the daughter of Johan van Veen, a hydraulic engineer considered to be the father of the Delta Works. Before the storm of 1953, Van Veen came up with an elaborate and costly long-term plan to protect the Netherlands by restructuring its entire delta, but he couldn’t conjure political support for it.
“Everybody said [to him], ‘Well, you have good plans, but they’re too big. It’s too much money. We don’t have that money. And it’s not so urgent,’” says Van Burg.
Then the flood of 1953 happened, and Van Veen’s work was carried out.
Most Dutch schools have lessons on flood management and climate change, but the Stichting Blauwe Lijn aims to broaden this education by organizing grand tours of the country’s various storm barriers, dikes and water-pumping stations, and by encouraging children to come up with their own solutions for water management. For instance, in 2021, the foundation hired an artist to create professional drawings of different kids’ visions. Then it presented the pictures to people in government positions currently responsible for water management.
“These are brilliant ideas, without limits, without filters,” says Kramer, who shows me four of these drawings hanging on the wall of the Keringhuis’s theater. “Driving houses to make sure we can drive away from the water, or big slides, or [life] on an island and going by boat to school.
“Children have no limits, and they are our future,” Kramer adds. “They’re our new engineers. They have to start protecting us in the future.”
‘The problem with sea level rise’
Diermanse of Deltares says he believes the Netherlands has been able to prepare so well for sea level rise due to its wealth plus its small size and large coastal zone.
“It’s much easier for us than for Canada, Australia, U.S., because [the coast is] much more spread out in those countries,” Diermanse says. “Historically, flooding has been the one and only natural hazard that’s been a threat to the Netherlands … so flood risk and how to protect ourselves against it has always been the primary focus of the Netherlands. It’s almost part of our DNA, and that makes it much more acceptable politically, for instance, to reserve a substantial budget to get those things done.”
Of course, other countries are preparing as well. Bangladesh, for instance, worked with experts from Deltares to create a Dutch-inspired national delta plan to protect itself from rising seas with interventions like polder reinforcement and better access to drinking water and irrigation for crops. The Pacific island nation of Kiribati is trying to secure funds from wealthier countries to physically elevate its islands above the encroaching sea. And while the United States lacks a unified national approach to combating sea level rise, it employs different strategies in various regions and municipalities. For example, cities like New Orleans and Providence are protected by storm barriers, and federal money has been allocated to relocate coastal communities at risk of flooding.
But experts say few nations are taking the threat of sea level rise seriously enough or putting enough effort into preparing for it.
“The problem with sea level rise is that it’s potentially a big disaster, but in many places, it’s still decades away,” Diermanse says. “So … you cannot touch it yet. It’s also way beyond typical political horizons … and that makes it very challenging.”
Diermanse says if there’s one lesson to be taken from the Dutch, it’s to install a national program like the Delta Programme, something he says he hasn’t seen other countries organize to the same extent.
However, not all countries have the resources or capacity to adequately prepare for future sea level rise — or even to deal with coastal flooding happening now. Take Ghana, for example. In 2021, powerful storm surges forced thousands of people to evacuate from their coastal homes. In response, the Ghanaian government announced plans to protect coastal communities with seawalls. But as of 2022, the government said it was still trying to raise funds to complete the project. Not only that, but the people affected by the flooding have received little to no assistance from the government.
Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy, the global director of policy and investments at the Resilient Cities Network, an international NGO with an office in Rotterdam that encourages cities to be future-resilient, says a lack of funding can be a key reason for countries not sufficiently preparing for sea level rise.
“It is incumbent that wealthy nations, those producing most of the harm that now hangs over us with such urgency, must step up for nations that are deeply affected and did little to add to the causes,” Sarkozy-Banoczy says in an email.
While cost estimates of adaptation measures are “staggering,” Sarkozy-Banoczy says they pale in comparison to what it would cost not to prepare.
“We have seen the billions and trillions add up from storms over the last years, and with sea level rise this will get worse as it collides with other chronic stresses and acute shocks,” he says, “especially for communities on the front lines of these changes and those already vulnerable.”
‘The future world’
Henk Ovink, the Dutch special envoy for international water affairs, smiles at me through his camera lens. He’s squeezed our interview into his short lunch break, between back-to-back meetings, but he takes a generous amount of time to respond to my questions.
“I have a challenge,” he says when I ask him about the global risk of sea level rise. “You can’t say, the current world plus a meter of sea level rise. No, it is the future world. And that future world with 1 meter of sea level rise looks completely different.”
Likewise, he says that instead of perceiving sea level rise as a single issue, we should view it in relation to all of the current and future pressures facing our world — such as rising geopolitical tensions, biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, and other water-related issues not connected to sea level rise. For instance, a lack of water during prolonged dry periods causes land to slowly sink, a process known as subsidence.
“In scale, there is far more subsidence versus sea level rise,” says Ovink, not only in reference to the Netherlands, but for many countries in the world. “Our groundwater extractions are massively speeding up our subsidence patterns, and because of the combination of groundwater extraction, droughts, damming, biodiversity loss … we see a massive increase in salinity of our groundwater and our soils.”
He says a way forward is to use holistic thinking and to “invest in collaborative efforts” between people. Such an approach could draw on nature-based solutions, Indigenous knowledge, local knowledge and institutional capacity, he says.
For example, he says the Room for the River program in the Netherlands took shape through “collaborative capacity,” and that it addressed “environmental security, economic security, health security, and, of course, water security.”
In Ovink’s 2019 TedX talk, he also describes a program he helped establish called Rebuild with Design, in which people came up with innovations such as restoring a swamp in the Netherlands to both boost biodiversity and alleviate flood risk. There was also an idea to build artificial reefs off the coast of Staten Island, New York, to weaken storm surges while creating new habitat for fish and other organisms.
In another program Ovink headed, Water as Leverage, creators designed ways to use water to solve problems while managing risks that water may pose. For instance, they designed a system for water-stressed Chennai, India, that would collect rainwater and treat wastewater and runoff in constructed wetlands, then transfer the water to underground aquifers to recharge groundwater supplies, reduce pollution and lessen flood risk.
With these kinds of holistic approaches, Ovink says he believes it’s possible to confront the world’s many issues, including sea level rise, and to create a livable, sustainable future. It might even be possible to prevent the most pessimistic scenarios predicted for sea level rise.
“I think we’re perfectly capable,” Ovink says.
“IPCC is also very clear on this. We can prevent a world that is warmer than 1.5,” he adds, referring to the number of degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels beyond which Earth faces catastrophic climate change. “We can. Will we? That is a different question.”
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Banner image: With the lands always getting flooded, Dutch windmills were built originally to pump the water out from the land. Image by Enes Dincer via Unsplash (Public domain).
Correction (03/22/2023): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there were 12 waterboards, but there are actually 21. It also stated that it took 45 years to initiate the Delta Programme after the 1953 flood, but this was revised to say that it took 45 years to complete the Delta Works after the flood.
Box, J. E., Colgan, W. T., Wouters, B., Burgess, D. O., O’Neel, S., Thomson, L. I., & Mernild, S. H. (2018). Global sea-level contribution from Arctic land ice: 1971-2017. Environmental Research Letters, 13(12), 125012. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aaf2ed
Van Alphen, J., Haasnoot, M., & Diermanse, F. (2022). Uncertain accelerated sea-level rise, potential consequences, and adaptive strategies in the Netherlands. Water, 14(10), 1527. doi:10.3390/w14101527