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Reclaiming Shorelines After Climate Change-Related Damage

An increasing number of coastal communities are at risk from climate change-related damage. With rising sea levels, extreme weather events and similar phenomena, the country’s shorelines are beginning to change in dramatic ways. The issue extends far beyond the United States; however, and its escalation has significant implications for people around the world.

Rotterdam in the Netherlands serves as just one example on a growing list of affected areas. This port city in the Dutch province of South Holland has experienced the full effects of climate change. They’ve taken a different approach than the current administration in the U.S., addressing the subject of rising sea levels with new solutions instead of a wait-and-see mentality.

The Netherlands has even made a business of climate change, viewing it as a lucrative opportunity for high-tech engineering and water management projects. They’ve devised lakes, parks, plazas and garages that act as enormous reservoirs when the rivers and seas spill over. Instead of keeping the water at bay, so to speak, they’ve learned to live with something they feel is irrepressible.

The country’s early history may account for their perspective on climate change and willingness to adapt. Settlers in the small nation were familiar with the pressures of living in waterlogged areas, unable to make progress unless they embraced their circumstances. Water was a constant presence, and they accepted its place in their culture, treating it as a part of their national identity.

With this in mind, what can we learn from the Netherlands’ approach to climate change? How have they acclimated to their conditions, and how can we reclaim affected shorelines in the wake of a disaster? These interwoven questions have interesting answers, and we’ll examine them in detail as we take a comprehensive look at climate change and water management in the next decade.

Looking at Rotterdam

A nationwide program in the Netherlands called “Room for the River” has improved on traditional strategies for water management. A 22-acre area of reclaimed fields and canals called the “Eendragtspolder” is an excellent example of their progressive approach to climate change. The Eendragtspolder collects floodwater in emergencies, but that description doesn’t fully encapsulate its value.

Beyond its utility as a reservoir, the Eendragtspolder also serves as a popular retreat for cyclists and those interested in water sports. It hosted the World Rowing Championships in 2016, a claim which speaks to the success of the “Room for the River” program. The Netherlands has found a way to capitalize on the effects of climate change and effectively mitigate them at the same time.

When the Eendragtspolder isn’t hosting a sporting event, it acts as a reservoir for the Rotte River Basin. If the nearby Rhine overflows — which researchers predict will happen every decade — the Eendragtspolder is there to preserve the safety of Rotterdam residents. They can trust in the Netherlands’ solutions for water management to protect them from rising sea levels.

The Dutch haven’t rested on the success of their “Room for the River” program to address the threat of climate change. In addition to reservoirs like Eendragtspolder, they’ve also developed a national GPS-guided app which informs a resident of how far below sea level they are at any given moment. Dutch children must also learn to swim in clothes and shoes if they want to use a public pool unrestricted.

In short, the Netherlands has reinvented itself as a world leader in environmental ingenuity. They’ve demonstrated the potential of new technologies for water management, not only in places like Rotterdam but domestic cities like New York or Los Angeles. Of course, these cities and similar areas have their own methods of water management, combating climate change with techniques that are slightly more familiar.

Reclaiming U.S. Shorelines

The Netherlands is proactive with climate change, preparing for issues far in advance of an emergency situation. They focus on prevention instead of damage control. While this is effective, and far less costly than the alternative, certain communities in high-risk areas don’t have the resources to integrate a program like “Room for the River.”

These coastal towns and cities can only reinforce their existing defenses and reclaim their shorelines after the disaster has passed. To that end, they have several solutions for reclamation in the aftermath of an extreme weather event. The process of dredging has proven value for the rehabilitation of an affected area.

More specifically, dredging is beneficial for sediment removal and shoreline or beachfront restoration. It effectively clears an obstructed waterway through the relocation of silt, sand, gravel and other subaqueous materials that create blockages. This facilitates the recovery of a community and keeps their ports navigable for recreational and commercial users.

Communities also have to consider the subject of debris management as they attend to their shorelines. It’s essential to establish a strategy that determines the details of collection and removal: who collects the debris, when they should collect specific debris streams, where to haul the debris and how to communicate the plan to the public.

A significant number of people have to coordinate to maintain the quality of a shoreline. With dredging and debris management, they can gradually begin to address the damage from a natural disaster. Of course, these strategies for containing the effects of climate change aren’t always the most attractive, especially among other options.

Combating Climate Change

The typical solutions for sea level rise — such as sea walls — are quickly losing their appeal with the introduction of alternate techniques. Boston was intent on building a massive sea wall before they turned their attention to other methods of water management. An $11 billion investment in a wall no longer seemed like the best course of action when they reviewed their options.

City planners have shown interest in the Dutch concept of coexisting with water. They’ve seen the success of the Netherlands’ reservoirs and they want to apply the idea in Boston. Their reimagined waterfront would handle at least 21 inches of sea level rise by channeling water into parks — 67 acres of green space along the water with the restoration of 122 tidal acres.

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is excited for the changes, saying of the sea wall, “Besides taking decades to complete, a barrier would bring its own set of serious ecological issues… Shoreline projects are more feasible and more effective ways to increase our city’s resilience… This is our vision of a resilient Boston. It’s a system not of barricades but of beaches and parks and trails and open spaces.”

At the same time, coastal cities in states like Florida and Hawaii are continuing to invest in their existing sea walls. They may benefit by following Rotterdam’s example, as well as the example of other countries around the world with different views on climate change. For example, planners in Greenland are attempting to reduce sea level rise through the integration of submerged barriers and dams.

Planners hope to manage the ice melt of ice sheets and glaciers through the strategic placement of these barriers and dams. While this particular method may not seem relevant to a state like Florida, the point remains the same. Innovating on past solutions is far more promising than a continued reliance on current techniques for water management.

Moving Into the Next Decade

Sea levels have increased by 20 centimeters over the last century, with a rapid acceleration since the early 1990s. Glaciers and ice caps have melted at an alarming rate, and with these changes, coastal communities have experienced first-hand the damaging effects of climate change. Experts predict that these issues will only intensify if the country remains on its current trajectory.

Fortunately, we have a diverse variety of solutions to protect against flooding, extreme weather events and related phenomena. As of now, sea walls are prevalent, but it’s clear the country can’t afford to keep building and repairing these defenses. City planners need to engage in a serious discussion on the subject and acknowledge the value of integrated reservoirs.

That said, it’s impossible to manage the issues associated with climate change without addressing the source. Sea walls, reservoirs, barriers and dams may help to mitigate the damage from climate change, but they don’t deal with it directly. They’re a temporary solution to a persistent problem, one that will continue to grow until we’ve exhausted our options.

Methods of reclamation like dredging and debris management will help, and they’ll prove indispensable in the coming decade. Even so, these efforts can place pressure on a community that may not have the resources to rehabilitate their shorelines. This is true in first world countries like the United States and an undeniable fact in developing countries elsewhere.

So what are the next steps? How do we move forward when the world itself is against us? It starts with restoration on a much larger scale, taking what we’ve learned from researchers, scientists and environmental organizations and applying it in our everyday lives — whether it’s something as small as riding a bicycle to work or participating in group efforts with other like-minded individuals.


Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!

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