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As seas change, Holland and Florida team up


Flip-flops and wooden shoes. An apt metaphor for Florida and Holland. Flip-flops for the laid-back, transient culture of Florida. Wooden shoes for the stolid, no-nonsense culture of the Dutch.

The two governments are about to become partners in a unique technology exchange that offers the promise of cost-effective management of water and land use challenges — a partnership that could become a model for international cooperation on climate-change issues designed to be replicated by the United Nations for application around the globe.

Though far apart in climate, language and distance, Florida and Holland have a great deal in common. Each has vast stretches of low-lying seashore vulnerable to Mother Nature. Each has huge populations living close to those vulnerable shores. Each worries about adequate freshwater resources to sustain its cities and farms. Each has erred in managing its water resources in the past — draining, dredging, damming and polluting as if water were a friend of limitless forgiveness.

The shared concerns are the basis of a blossoming relationship between the two governments called the Florida-Holland Connection. Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to formalize that relationship in July when he signs an agreement with the Dutch consulate to share information on water and land use issues.

Actually, the partnership is already operating unofficially, with teams from each country making trips to study the management practices of the other. A 14-member class from the UNESCO Institute for Water Education (IHE) in Delft recently completed a two-week visit hosted by the Patel Center for Global Solutions at the University of South Florida and the Interagency Modeling Center at the South Florida Water Management District.

In April, a 16-member delegation of Florida engineers, attorneys, academics and private citizens attended a five-day water course at UNESCO IHE in Delft, a visit organized by the Florida Earth Foundation of West Palm Beach.

The five days were crammed with presentations by Dutch academics and engineers on the strategies and expertise the Dutch have developed for dealing with natural events that are every bit as catastrophic as Florida's hurricanes. The week also included field trips to some of Holland's most impressive hydraulic projects, including the massive Maeslant storm surge barrier on the Rhine downriver from Rotterdam and the equally mind-boggling Oosterschelde storm surge barrier to the south. The enormity of those public works projects — the Dutch claim the Maeslant barrier is the largest movable structure on Earth — had most of the Florida delegates shaking their heads in disbelief. From the country whose ingenuity and commitment put humans on the moon almost 40 years ago, that awestruck reaction is particularly relevant.

For the overwhelming message of the course was not just the Dutch technical skills in water management, impressive as they are. Rather, it was the awareness of the Dutch chutzpah in facing up the challenges of their unique environment — the sheer audacity of the nation not only to contain an ocean now but to look ahead 100 years in anticipation of what climate change will mean to its 16-million citizens — and to be ready to deal with it. As the United States wallows in denial of global warming, Holland is actively preparing for weather aberrations that will produce catastrophic flooding and sea level rises to threaten low-lying cities. This will be true not just for Rotterdam or Amsterdam but for the pristine, tourist-magnet beaches of Florida. The warming of our Earth is indeed global, respecting no boundaries.

And this important insight: As the United States finds itself mired in shaky economic times, if not outright recession, Holland basks in prosperity and its industries boldly plan to capitalize on the opportunities presented by global warming and sea level rise. From a 4-square-mile expansion into the North Sea of the Port of Rotterdam — already the busiest in the world — to research into "smart soils" for dike-building and pinpoint weather forecasting, the Dutch are marching boldly into the scary new world of glacial meltdowns, flooding and droughts that a warming planet will produce — not just to protect their people but because they see economic benefits in doing so.

There is, in this partnership, not just an exchange of expertise in restoring a wetland or preventing a storm surge but also the prospect of creating jobs and business opportunities as international companies take notice of Florida's proactive response to climate change, including Gov. Crist's aggressive "green" initiative.

The most striking observation was the fact that Aug. 29, 2005, appears to have more significance to the Netherlands than to the United States. That's the day that Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Katrina served as a wake-up call for the Dutch, while the United States hit the snooze button.

Since 1953, Dutch officials have been aggressive in protecting their nation from flooding. On the night of Jan. 31 that year, much of South Holland drowned when a fierce North Sea storm combined with extraordinary tides to breach the dikes in Zeeland, Zuidholland and Noord-Brabant provinces. That storm caused more than 1,800 deaths, destroyed 3,000 homes and forced evacuation of 72,000 people as it severely damaged almost 500 miles of dikes and flooded some 1,200 square miles (nearly two-thirds) of the country. Never again, Dutch officials assured worried citizens. Holland would do whatever it took to protect its people from the North Sea.

Successive Dutch administrations made good on the pledge over the next 40 years. The ensuing public works project, labeled the Delta Works, produced a series of dams, locks, storm surge barriers and dikes that effectively walled off much of the south part of country from the North Sea — especially the Delta region into which three main rivers drain. Initially budgeted at $14.5-billion, the project effectively reduced Holland's exposed coastline by 435 miles by cutting off the sea's access to peninsulas and islands that formed much of South Holland's territory.

But Katrina gave Dutch water management officials a jolt. "Katrina really raised political awareness in the Netherlands," Dr. Hans Balfoort, director general of the Water Policy Board, informed the Floridians. "The images (from New Orleans) really hit hard. … Katrina changed our way of thinking."

Elaborating, Dr. Piet Dircke, professor of Urban Water Management at Rotterdam University, said, "We always thought we were okay — that it (massive flooding) would never happen again. Katrina showed us it could happen tomorrow. We learned about emergency plans. The Netherlands has none — not a single evacuation plan."

Moving people out of harm's way is something Florida knows a little something about. Now Holland is developing plans based on the Florida model. The country's first major mock evacuation drill is scheduled to occur this fall.

Of more far-reaching importance, the Dutch see Katrina not as a once-in-a-century weather anomaly but the harbinger of a long period of aberrant weather events that will only make Holland's water problems worse unless it prepares to deal with river flooding now. Extremely high river levels after heavy storms in 1993, '95 and '98 were also seen as a pattern of unpredictable weather that will only worsen as climate change accelerates.

On top of wild weather events, rising sea levels caused by melting polar icecaps add to the Dutch problem. Conservative estimates put the sea level rise over the next 100 years at 7 inches for Holland; more liberal estimates go to 27 inches. Looking out 300 years, the "maximum scenario" of sea level rise for which the Dutch are preparing is 16.4 feet. Yes, that's 16.4 feet.

Thus Katrina sealed a new Dutch strategy for dealing with water from one based on risk avoidance to one that emphasizes risk management. The new Dutch approach is called "Ruimte voor de Rivier" — Space for the Rivers. It's a 10-year, multinational program started in 2006 to enhance flood protection and environmental improvement of the Delta, initially budgeted at 2.1-billion euros ($3.4-billion). The name is descriptive of the effort. Instead of simply raising the dikes higher, as the Dutch have done for centuries as their country continues to sink below sea level, this plan focuses on giving the rivers more space to expand and thus to handle greater volumes of water in flooding periods.

It is among the most complex public works projects ever undertaken. In a country known for monumental engineering projects, that's saying a lot. The project will include enlarging river beds, removing groins and other obstacles that retard river flow, deepening the forelands in certain areas to accommodate more water, and actually giving up some precious polders (dike-enclosed land areas) by removing dikes.

All of this will be done in an environmentally friendly way, cleaning up polluted rivers and streams, enhancing wetlands and beaches while mitigating flooding.

For a people who have been building dikes to hold back water for about 1,200 years, destroying dikes to allow floodwater to spread into farms and homesites has to come as a culture shock — not to mention a heavy financial burden in a country that already spends fully 1 percent of its GNP on water management.

Learning of such ambitious planning, the Florida delegation was left wondering: Do the Dutch know something about climate change that we don't? If Katrina prompts them to spend prodigious amounts to prepare for impending disaster, why aren't we doing more to protect New Orleans? Or Tampa Bay? Or Jacksonville? Or Miami Beach?

There are no ready answers. But it was clear to the delegation that the Florida-Holland partnership held important benefits for both entities. For Florida, there is the sharing of 1,200 years worth of accumulated knowledge about water management that the Dutch have developed in the continual battle with the North Sea: dike construction, storm-surge barriers, drainage systems, pumping and land management.

For the Dutch, there is potential from sharing in the century of experience Florida has had in dealing with hurricanes: early warning systems, storm-resistant construction standards, evacuation planning and recovery. Also, Florida's concern for the environment offers the Dutch lessons in pollution control, wetlands mitigation and restoration, and preservation of natural lands.

Research is an important factor in the partnership. The Dutch are heavily engaged in research for new technologies to enhance dike stability, forecast weather, move water, advance green initiatives and harness the Internet to gather data. International companies like IBM and Deltares are flocking to the Netherlands to invest in this research.

Behind this research is the impending threat of climate change. Almost everything the Florida delegation heard during its week in Holland was linked to preparations for the effects of climate change. Holland, with two-thirds of its territory below sea level, knows what rising seas could do to the nation's security, both physical and economic. Already the Dutch attribute frequent weather aberrations that have caused heavy flooding throughout Europe to climate change. And they believe this is only the beginning. More ferocious North Sea storms will threaten the dikes, heavier rainfall will create flooding, droughts will dry up fresh water supplies and rising temperatures will affect crops.

The Dutch have a global focus that has not yet reached policymakers in the United States. In trade, in weather forecasting, technology development, transportation and land use, the Dutch are looking to the kind of world we will inhabit in 300 years. That view is hinged on one unavoidable reality: It's all about water. It is both the lifeblood of the planet as well as its worst potential enemy.

With 2.7-billion people — roughly 40 percent of the world's total population — living in or near coastal cities, many of them in deltas especially vulnerable to rising seas and violent storms, water poses a grave threat to life as well as to economic activity. The disaster in early May in Myanmar after a Category 4 cyclone struck the Irrawaddy Delta, killing tens of thousands, is an all-too-graphic illustration of the global vulnerability. So are this summer's floods in the Midwest. And so was New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

What have we learned from those disasters? What can we learn to help us deal with future ones? That is the true bottom line of the Florida-Holland Connection. Bringing together the collective knowledge of both governments, along with the expertise of water professionals on Holland's water boards and Florida's equivalents in the water management districts and Corps of Engineers, offers the hope of survival, even prosperity, if the right policy decisions are made in time.

David Klement is a retired journalist who is now director of the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus. He was a member of the Florida-Holland Connection delegation to the Netherlands in April. E-mail him at

As seas change, Holland and Florida team up 06/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 30, 2008 11:29am]
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