zondag 28 september 2014

The Netherlands and Climate Change.

Climate change for the Netherlands will have at least these consequences: warmer summers (and killer heat waves in Western Europe), strangely enough also more severe cold spells, more intense downpours and of course sea level rise. Most likely also more intense storms.

Warmer summers may see more winners than losers here, provided agriculture adapts adequately. The result could be a somewhat longer growing season and, if chosen well, also more valuable crops. (I now grow kiwi’s in my back yard!) Note that a long heat wave in Western Europe (1999?) has reputedly cost an extra 30,000 lives above what was statistical normal for that time of the year

Cold snaps in winter! People will need to heat their homes (much) more and longer, but the State will profit in extra taxes, extra natural gas sales and even in more export sales.

More intense downpours may adversely affect agriculture – "drowning" crops where drainage is bad – and may also require costly adaptation on (city) storm drain systems. In some places and instances we already see streets & cellars flooded, causing damage to property.

Sea level rise: while the Netherlands is renowned for water management, sea level rise may potentially spell doom for us. Our country's history is full of disastrous floods but lately we’ve grown complacent, counting on our advanced technology and superior “knowledge”. The last big disaster was in 1953 and by now most people forgot how bad it was.

Let’s throw in a little statistical figure: some 70% of the population is, and between 70% and 80% of GDP comes from below sea level!

Holland being a very small country, really densely populated and with very sophisticated and intricate water management systems it is not really workable to look at just *one part* of our country and devise adaptation plans.

But where most people – Coursera staff also, it seems – equate sea level rise and adaptation mostly with strong sea walls… In a river delta that is not the whole story. As I see it our biggest problems will come from upstream, France, Belgium, Switzerland & Germany. In most places we have forced the rivers into very narrow river beds and taken over the flood plains for our human activities. All over Europe we see in periods of extreme rainfall or snow melt flooding taking place. And all that water ultimately comes downstream to Holland.

And if a river in spate meets with higher sea levels… well, it spells trouble. After 1953 we have correctly identified our coastline as too long and too vulnerable to protect under extreme conditions: Spring Tide combined with a severe north-westerly gale. So we have devised our “Delta Plan” and shortened and strengthened our coastline. In most places we can probably already cope with 80 to 100 cm of sea level rise.

Of course even for Holland the question is: to what height can we / will we technically defend ourselves, will Belgium and Germany do the same (or are our “flanks” our weak points?) and to what point is it economically viable? 1 meter? 2 meters? Or, if the Greenland icecap melts, 7 meters?

In the heart of Holland lies the IJsselmeer. This used to be open sea with a long coastline untuil, after a big flood Ingenieur Cornelis Lely designed the IJsselmeer, Afsluitdijk, Houtribdijk and the polders, one of which I live in. Actually He came up with the concept of shortening our shorelines to improve our safety; the Delta Plan was the second stage…

There is however a limit to how much water it can hold without risk of catastrophic flooding to major parts of Holland. We have strengthened our defences “on the outside” but on the inside they are - in parts - just as weak as a century ago!

With rising sea levels getting rid of water flowing into the IJsselmeer through the rivers is severely limited and it even now sometimes presents a challenge already. Storms, moon phases all conspire to let the system drain only a limited amount at low tides, 2 times a day.

To adapt large pumps, or other alternatives are under consideration. To have the level in the IJsselmeer fluctuate a lot, or go up permanently, with knock on effects on our drinking water is not considered a good adaptation. Several areas have now been designated where the level of protection will be of a (much) lower standard, leaving people the choice to use and invest in these areas or not.

In the polders we experience problems with extreme downpours; even though we can anticipate and start pumping in advance the pumping capacity was installed in the 1950’s and we did not anticipate this global warming back then. There may come a time when we can no longer accept flooding within the polders and must adapt by installing bigger or more pumps.

(Gemaal Wortman, the pumps near my hometown: 4 x 500.000 l/min, @  lowest point in the polder)

 Another adaptation, making the best of things, along our rivers we are now identifying areas with little or no economic importance to, as we call it, “give them back to nature.”  We turn them into (valuable) nature reserves where a river in spate can temporarily store some of its water. But parts of the “Betuwe” and east of Rotterdam are at risk. To “protect” these we may have to resort to flood other parts of Holland intentionally. And that is now, before the adverse effects of climate change in the coming decades really hit us.

In the long term – depending on how much warmer it gets how fast – Most of the Netherlands will have “to be given back to nature”, the most extreme form of “adaptation”. My daughter, now 10 years old, will hopefully not see that happening, but human nature being what it is… that moment will come. Her “ancestral home” is some 5 meters below sea level

 (Gemaal Wortman; note the cars to get a feel for 5,5 mtr.)

One would think therefore that Holland, like say Bangladesh and the Pacific Island States has a vested interest in mitigation; adaptation being to all intents and purposes useless in the long run! Well, our government in it’s infinite wisdom is too busy pumping every last cubic meter of natural gas out of our soil and sell it. They intend to look for shale gas wherever it might possibly be.                                    
Renewable energy, specifically (residential) solar panels are – some (and I’m one) would say actively – discouraged. Wind turbines are now being deployed on land and in our coastal waters… by the same electricity producers that have built - and in part brought on-stream – coal-fired thermal power plants! Coal fired power plants are hard to “turn down” so when much wind provides much renewable energy… we decouple the wind turbines!  And an even bigger ‘blind spot” is heat(ing)!! Everywhere we talk about electricity production… yet heat accounts for around FIFTY percent of all primary energy use!

Eons ago our ancestors came down the rivers to populate this area we now call Holland. And with the sorry state of affairs worldwide and at home… we may end up moving back upstream. choosing he ultimate Adaptation Strategy: Migration.

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