Adaptation Works: How Holland Can Help Britain To Deal With Flooding

  • Date: 22/04/14
  • Will Storr, The Daily Telegraph

The Dutch are experts at holding back flooding with dikes, muskrat traps, and now an elaborate surf-flattening ‘sand engine’. But what good is all this to water-logged Britain?

Holland's Sand Engine flood defence

Twenty million cubic metres of sand was used to build the ‘Sand Engine’ flood defence

Twice this year, the Berkshire village in which I live has flooded. All access by road has been cut off. We’ve become an island of tarmac and brick; the water, at times, has been just inches from my door. A few weeks ago, I peered out of my window to see Theresa May striding down the road, looking Canute-faced in wellies. She glowered this way and she glowered that way, but the water didn’t care. It just sat there, exactly where it wasn’t supposed to be, all green and black and floating with crumpled Volvic bottles and strange foam.

Theresa May didn’t have any answers. Nor did the men from the army who arrived shortly afterwards, with their lorries full of khaki sandbags. I wouldn’t mind, but this village been here for a thousand years, tucked into a bend in The Thames. You would’ve thought, by now, that somebody would’ve worked out how to stop the water behaving like this.

As soon at the road to Heathrow is reopened, I decided, I’d fly to Holland for answers. For that is the nation an increasingly underwater world is looking towards to solve a problem that’s only going to get deeper.

Taking the 45 minute taxi ride from Rotterdam Airport to the coast at Scheveningen it becomes obvious why the Dutch have their reputation. The land is low, flat and vulnerable, and yet everywhere you look, there’s water. Dikes, ditches and narrow canals pass through fields and beneath motorways and, when you reach the urban spaces, they’re still there, channels of water running between the streets and tall buildings, dark, tamed and still. The country itself is a massive peat swamp, surrounded entirely by threat.

With the north sea on one side and the rivers of inland Europe flowing through it from all the others, this is a nation that has lived for an eternity with the existential menace of too much water. Its three major cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague exist, like two-thirds of its 16 million population, on flood-prone land. If you laid all its dikes out, end to end, they’d stretch for nearly 50,000 miles.

My journey ends at the beach at Kijkduin, a short drive from The Hague. It’s one of the most futuristic flood defence structures in the world, but all I can see are some birds, a fleet of kitesurfers, a pleasant café and maybe a dog or two enjoying a gambol across generous swathes of sand, through which arcs and channels of seawater run. If it wasn’t for the fact I’ve met the men behind the project, civil engineers Huib de Vriend and Marcel Stive, it would be impossible to know that everything in this lovely vista is, in fact, a part of their brilliant ‘Sand Engine.’

The engineers explain that Holland’s low coastline means their beaches are highly vulnerable to erosion, especially following fierce north sea storms. “In the UK, you have cliffs, so you don’t worry about flooding like we do,” says Stive. “We’re scared to death! If it breaks here, we’d have flooding for 50 kilometres inland. It would just flow in.”

To help prevent such a catastrophe, the Dutch government passed a law in 1990 which said the coastline had to be maintained at its current levels. Over the years, they’d tried all the things the rest of the world still does to keep it from washing away – spits, sea walls, dredging sand from the middle of the ocean and dumping it on the beach to make good, or “nourish”, the damage.

Then, in 2010, Stive had an ingeniously simple idea. “I looked at a map of the coast and said, it has to be here for 20 years,” says Stive. “We know we lose about one million cubic metres of sand a year. Let’s put 20 million cubic metres of sand here.”

When waves hit a coastline, what they want to do is straighten it. What Stive and de Vriend have done, with their 17m euro, 1.25 mile long “engine”, is given the sea something new and massive to straighten. But this isn’t a mere fat sandy mound. It’s a structure that’s been carefully designed to pose the greatest possible challenge to the relentless surf.

“It’s shaped in a big arc, more or less, with a lagoon and a lake put in,” says Stive. “The Minister of Finance said the project had to be multifunctional, so it has recreational values, ecological values, whatever. Nature organisations love it because we’ve created a very diverse habitat. That café has doubled its seating capacity since we were last here, and the kite surfers love it. They have this YouTube video where they ask for three more Sand Engines.”

It’s initiatives such as this that have, in recent years, given the water engineers of Holland their almost mythical status amongst flood defenders the world over. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York, in 2012, the $20 billion protection plan that was subsequently instituted built upon principles that were pioneered by the Dutch. Officials from as far away as China, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh are currently consulting Dutch experts.

When Britain’s Environment Agency needed technology and expertise to help rescue the stricken people of the Somerset Levels, they went to Holland to find it. The Dutch Van Heck group shipped 20 giant pumps on thirty lorries over to the west country, and sent a cadre of Dutch engineers to work them.

One of the reasons the Dutch have become so good at all this is they’ve had a long time to think about it. “We started in the Middle Ages,” says Hans Brouer, senior rivers expert at the Dutch government’s Rijkswaterstaat.

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