As we analyze the effects of climate change and CSO’s in NYC and the issues they present, we will be looking at water systems all over the world – perhaps more advanced than our own – to see how they plan to or already deal with the types of problems that NYC’s water faces. As global warming increases, more polar ice caps are melting, and thus inevitably, the sea level will begin to rise. Environmentalists predict that eventually the sea level will rise so drastically that many now densely populated coastal areas will be completely swallowed by the advancing water. We examine water plans in Holland, the meeting point of 4 rivers, where they have begun to tackle the issues that rising sea levels have caused.

Some facts & figures related to water in the Netherlands

  • Population of the Netherlands: 16 million.
  • Population density: 465 people/km2 on average.
  • Major urban district: ‘Randstad’, which includes Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague.
  • Highest point: 322m above average at the Vaalserberg.
  • Lowest point: 6.74m below average, Nieuwerkerk aan de IJssel
  • Proportion of the country’s GDP generated below sea level: 70%.
  • Rainfall: 880 mm/year
  • Evaporation: 500 mm/year.
  • Primary flood defenses: 3,500 km in total, consisting of 1,430 km of river dikes, 1,017 km dikes around lakes, and 430 km dikes and 260 km dunes for coastal defense.
  • Sources: Water in the Netherlands 2004-2005 and Riool in Cijfers 2005 – 2006

The Netherland’s main challenge is its geographical flatness and wetness.  The Netherlands, often referred to as Holland, is bordered in the north by the North Sea, and its twelve administrative provinces are filled with many rivers, lakes, and estuaries.  Three major rivers, whose sources begin in southern and Eastern Europe and which traverse the Netherlands, converge to form the Rhine/Meuse/Scheldt Delta (one of the larger river deltas in western Europe); these waters empty into the North Sea.  Water management is essential for the Netherlands’ survival, since more than twenty percent of Holland is below sea level and another fifty percent is only a meter above sea level.  Flooding from both the sea and from its many rivers has plagued Holland for centuries.

Netherlands Sea Level
Netherlands Population Density

Even before the Netherlands had administrative provinces, the Dutch set up local districts for water control, known as water control boards, waterschap or hoogheemraadschap, in order to protect inhabitants from constant flooding.  These boards were originally established in the thirteenth century and continue in expanded capacity today (currently the Netherlands is divided into twenty-seven water control districts).  Extensive and elaborate water controls have continually been implemented in order to keep water out of inhabited areas.   Natural protections include dikes and levees, which are all types of land embankments meant to raise the land above sea level; dams to control the flow of rivers and estuaries through the country; and polders, swales, and ditches, which are low lying areas meant to contain and drain large water accumulation.

Challenging water management in the second half of the twentieth century were two very serious incidents: the North Sea Flood of 1953, in which more that eighteen hundred Dutch were killed; and the Rhine River Floods of 1995.  After the catastrophe of 1953, Holland began the Delta Works, the aim of which was to shorten the Dutch coastline.  To accomplish this, an enormous engineering effort, hailed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, expanded the Netherlands’ system of dams, dikes, storm surge barriers and the like in order to protect the Rhine/Meuse/Scheldt Delta in future.  Work was completed in 1997.  However, the 1995 disaster, unlike 1953, did not originate at sea, but from extreme rain conditions in the Ardennes Forest, coupled with snow runoff from the Alps, which swelled the Rhine and other rivers and caused terrible floods in Holland.   Better advance communication about this dangerous development and a quick and massive evacuation of about a quarter million Dutch people prevented a worse scenario.

The two main factors complicating current water management are dense populations and climate change.  There are very large populations located in Holland’s main urban centers, which are mostly under sea level, or barely above sea level.  Clearly, any catastrophe hitting a large population center will be devastating.  Early warning systems for mass evacuations are essential for population safety. Additionally, the warming of the Netherlands’ climate has caused sea levels to rise.  Consequently, even the recently completed Delta Works is not sufficiently high enough above sea level to truly protect the Dutch people.   The Staatscommissie voor Duurzame Kustontwikkeling (known as the Second Delta or Veerman Committee) of 2008 predicts that sea levels will rise between 65 and 130 centimeters by the year 2100. The committee recommends strengthening already existing Delta Works dikes, broadening the North Sea coast with sand barriers, using southwestern lakes as river water retention basins, and raising the water level in the IJsselmeer to provide freshwater. Unfortunately, the cost for these necessary improvements will probably run about one billion Euros per year for the duration of this project.

Clean and abundant fresh water is also of concern in Holland of the twenty-first century.  The Netherlands has a high ranking among European nations in providing its populace with clean drinking water from both above and below ground sources, and wants to continue to earn that rank.  Growing population and tainted water supply (for example, excessive nitrate-rich manure and high metal content have seeped into Dutch soil) are posing considerable challenges to Dutch water management.  The Dutch government has passed the Water Supply Act and the Decree on the Water Supply, among other legislation, to ensure clean and efficient water for all. District Water Control Boards work together with the Department of Public Works and Water Management to oversee the quality and quantity of regional water in the Netherlands.  In addition to monitoring water levels and maintaining waterways and canals, they also treat wastewater and control the quality of surface water. Membrane technology, desalination and disinfection are various techniques currently in use.  Municipal bodies ensure that waste material is discharged in sewers properly.  In the Netherlands, taps distribute healthy water that is chlorine-free, biologically stable and safe to drink. Leakage losses are extremely low.  The Water Management Boards ensure that lines leading to homes are clean; individual homeowners must maintain the safety of their own houses’ water supply lines and taps.

Storms, flooding, pollution, and run-off are among the latest concerns for which the new Dutch Water Act has been passed.  Holland wants to control polluting run-off from entering its water supply, have rain water infiltrate the soil by use of swales (installed with regulating devices to lower the level of drainage in winter and to store groundwater in summer), continue to prevent floods, and either discharge or disinfect waste water in treatment plants.  Holland needs to proceed with further investigation and surveys of its soil and its infiltration capacity; and its groundwater tables.  New construction needs to include geo-textiles, drainage of sites before construction, and increased construction of swales.  Further improvement at quick and effective communication with Holland’s populace in case of emergencies is also needed.


Table 1: “Water in the Netherlands,” Waterland-Water Information Network. Web. http://www.waterland.net/index.cfm/site/Water%20in%20the%20Netherlands/pageid/82F77A67-F8E6-0465-01179B9CD26816FF/index.cfm

Image 1: http://www.australianclimatemadness.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/polders.jpg

Image 2: http://www.katinkahesselink.net/squidoo/klimaat_population_density_410.jpg

Table of Contents:


o CSO in NYC
Combined Sewer System
Eliminating CSO

o Drinking Water in NYC
Buried Streams

o Holland

o Water Around the World

o PLANYC Initiatives

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