Opinion: The Netherlands “Room for the River” project provides preferable alternatives to seawalls

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

In an effort to combat the rise of sea levels, many countries have been building artificial barriers such as levees or dams along the coastal borders. However, the Netherlands has developed a distinctive method to protect their borders.

Seawalls are often used along coasts to prevent flooding and act as protection from water storms. One example of their application is on the coast of Tanzania where they have been built with financial support from the Adaptation Fund, the Least Developed Countries Fund, and the Government of Tanzania.

However, people fail to mention how these artificial borders (also known as levees) are unsustainable.

Artificial levees are fairly similar to natural levees, except that some are built with concrete to prevent erosion on exposed aspects. Natural levees raise the height of the stream channel, reducing the amount of flooding that will occur on the floodplain, but they are formed from sediment produced by weathering and erosion.

Artificial levees, on the other hand, pollute the nearby water bodies as they wear down due to weathering. Concrete is not biodegradable and in the long run, may cause erosion of soil, water pollution and flooding.

Environmental-based solutions would be preferable to reinforce the existing ecology’s protective capacities. Not only are they effective, but they also have a lower cost and are sustainable. One country that has pioneered these measures is the Netherlands.

The Netherlands has recently been facing climate change concerns. According to The New York Times, 90% of the city of Rotterdam is below sea level. The country lies in a delta where three rivers – the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt – intersect and spill into the ocean. As ocean levels rise, the risk of flooding increases. In order to adapt to these changes, the Netherlands has developed some eco-friendly measures that help them protect their borders and prevent submersion.

Henk Ovink is the country’s globally-recognized salesman-in-chief for Dutch expertise on rising water and climate change. Delegations often end up hiring Dutch firms, which dominate the global market in high-tech engineering and water management.

“We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” Ovink said. “We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps and public spaces.”

The Dutch have built “water parks” that double as reservoirs for the swelling water levels in a project called “Room for the River.” Established in 2006, the project strives to increase the capacity of rivers to cope with high water levels at 30 locations in the Netherlands.

The Dutch government in partnership with the Dutch provinces, regional water boards and municipalities, leads the program. “Room for the River” first began to address the concern that there was more frequent and heavier rainfall, which increases the risk of flooding.

The ministry of infrastructure and water management in the Netherlands is called Rijkswaterstaat. In addition to establishing water parks as reservoirs, one objective of the Rijkswaterstaat is to relocate levees further inland and construct high-water channels. They also plan to lower the floodplains in some locations. These areas will then be inundated during periods of high water levels, thus temporarily giving the river more room and easing the pressure on the levees.

They also plan to lower groynes (structures built into the river that disrupt water flow) and/or remove polders (tracts of land entirely surrounded by levees). The intention is to make “room for the river” and allow landscapes along rivers to be restored in order to act as “natural water sponges” in the event of a flood.

As we discover and start to understand the importance of protecting our borders from rising sea levels, we should learn from developments created all around us. The “Room for the River” project may inspire us to get creative with more sustainable solutions for our future projects.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you know anything about how the Netherlands is targeting climate change? Do you believe that if we don’t change our habits regarding how we address climate concerns, that more obstacles may arise? Why?

“I am only somewhat informed on climate change. I know that an increase in the average global temperature can have major damage, including an increase in heat wave durations, sea level risings, and an increase in rainstorm intensity, reduction of certain crops, and a massive decrease in coral reefs. However, this is a potential future, meaning we still have time to change it. We can reduce the global average temperature in many ways, including, using renewable energy, reducing the use of heating and A.C. systems, and decreasing the popularity of meat. If these are done, there will be a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions slowing the increase in the global average temperature.” Amrith Ranjan, 15, Rising Sophomore at Briar Woods High School/Academy of Science, 15, Ashburn, VA
“Climate change is the result of the rising average temperature of Earth that stems from human activity; it poses many significant issues to our environment. Such problems include rising sea levels, a loss of wildlife habitats, and an increase in natural disasters. If we don’t change our habits and spread awareness on climate change, these problems will worsen and can eventually lead to our Earth becoming uninhabitable.” Johanna Lohmus, 15, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, McLean, VA
“I know that climate change is a very serious issue on our planet today. Although climate change is a phenomenon that does occur on earth naturally, the climate change seen today cannot be attributed just to the planet’s natural fluctuations in weather. Climate change is exacerbated by the greenhouse gases that humans have produced in large quantities ever since the start of the industrial revolution. The greenhouse gases are capable of retaining heat, and their large quantities have resulted in the earth’s temperatures rising. I have heard of skeptics blaming the effects of climate change on natural weather fluctuations, but at this point I feel it is obvious that whatever is happening to the earth’s temperatures is not “normal”. Scientists have been warning for years that once global warming rises to 2 degrees celsius, there will be irreversible, catastrophic effects on the earth, which is why I believe that more obstacles will most definitely arise if we fail to do anything about climate change. Already, we are seeing an increase in forest fires, (like the ones in california and the ones in Australia), intense hurricanes, draughts, etc. I fear that it will only get worse from here on out if no immediate action is taken to stop climate change. I haven’t heard of the government doing much to stop climate change (although I have heard about Trump withdrawing from the Paris deal, which I think was a step in the wrong direction) so I definitely think that needs to change. Also, I live on the east coast and my family comes from a rather small peninsula on the asian continent, so I am also worried about the sea levels that have been rising due to the ice caps melting from abnormally high temperatures.” Christina Han, 15, Rising Sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Centreville, VA