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Pressures on the Delta: Living with Water In a Time of Climate Change

Center, Daviz Simango, the mayor of Beira, Mozambique, answering questions about the proposed DUAL project for land development in his port city. Left, Bert Groothuizen of Van Oord and right, Ben Lamoree of Arcadis. Photos by Marsha Cohen.

Center, Daviz Simango, the mayor of Beira, Mozambique, answering questions about the proposed DUAL project for land development in his port city. Left, Bert Groothuizen of Van Oord and right, Ben Lamoree of Arcadis. Photos by Marsha Cohen.

His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander, second from left, opened Aquaterra on Wednesday, February 7. After the opening ceremony, he visited the exhibition with his delegation, including Melanie Schultze van Haegen, center. Here they are talking with

His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander, second from left, opened Aquaterra on Wednesday, February 7. After the opening ceremony, he visited the exhibition with his delegation, including Melanie Schultze van Haegen, center. Here they are talking with

Two of the representatives from California’s delegation, Gary Bobker, left, of The Bay Institute, and Karen Scarborough, right, of the California Resources Agency, talk to a guest in the exhibition hall.

Two of the representatives from California’s delegation, Gary Bobker, left, of The Bay Institute, and Karen Scarborough, right, of the California Resources Agency, talk to a guest in the exhibition hall.

Two things were very much on the minds of speakers and delegates at the Aquaterra World Forum in February – Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I Fourth Assessment Report Summary for Policymakers released in the last week of January 2007.

The World Forum was held in Amsterdam’s RAI Conference Centre from February 7 though 9.

The IPCC was established by WMO and UNEP “to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.” The report reconfirmed that the climate is changing, the sea level is rising, and we as a planet need to find solutions to survive these conditions.

In the Netherlands, as well as in Shanghai, Singapore, London and Hamburg, people have already made finding solutions to rising sea levels a priority, and this conference created an opportunity for them to exchange ideas. The exhibits and presentations displayed ideas for meeting this challenge, particularly showcasing the Dutch imagination and creativity in seeking alternatives to meet the future.

At this first ever Aquaterra 2007, A World Forum on Delta and Coastal Development, the aim was to take a hard look at our water resources and water management policies, recognize some of the most urgent issues, and find solutions to the threat posed by water along the world’s deltas and coasts. It was an initiative of the Amsterdam RAI, the Netherlands Water Partnership (NWP), the International Water Association (IWA) the European Water Partnership (EWA), Partners for Water, European Co-operation in Scientific and Technical Research (COST), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the Environmental & Resources Water Institute (EWRI), the Coasts Oceans, Ports and Rivers Institute (COPRI) and the International Association of Hydraulic Engineering and Research (IAHR).

The conference was officially opened by His Royal Highness Prince Willem-Alexander, who has recently been appointed chair of the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation. In addition, the vice minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, Melanie H. Shultz van Haegen, and Ineke Bakker, director general for Spatial Policy at the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning, and the Environment, gave keynote addresses. Among the topics they mentioned were the vulnerability of living and working in deltas, the need for emergency response plans and our incredible ability to forget the urgency of these issues until struck by a tsunami or a Katrina. “In 1953 the flooding in the south of the Netherlands was a wake-up call for the Dutch, much the same as Katrina was a wake-up call in the U.S.,” stated Shultz van Haegen, “but it did take us forty years to completely implement a secure plan.”

Working with Water

With 50 percent of the world’s population living near a coast, and this expected to reach 80 percent by 2040, this “call for planning” cannot be taken lightly, according to Bakker. “The change in present policy in the Netherlands is that in the past there was a ‘war against water’, whereas recent policy has adapted a new approach: ‘Go with the Flow’. This means finding so-called integrated solutions which make use of less invasive techniques and are more in harmony with the natural dynamics.”

This was a recurring theme: Work with water, not against it. Build with water. Don’t fight it. In real terms this means turning from hard solutions like dikes and dams, to softer solutions like building new types homes: amphibious floating houses or houses on stilts. It means not building on flood plains. It means dredging rivers and making them deeper and wider. Known in Holland as “Room for the River,” this new proposal includes instruments such as dike relocation, re-poldering and creating flood bypasses, with raising the height of dikes used only as a last resort.

Recently, after a great deal of consultation and discussion with all stakeholders, the Dutch Parliament has agreed to implement some of the “Room for the River” proposals. One of the first projects in this framework has been the construction of 18 so-called “amphibious” houses. Amphibious houses are built on floats and rise and fall as the river moves. These experimental floating houses have been sold to adventurous souls who now live in Maasbommel, in the river Maas, and whose houses indeed go up and down with the flow, as the minister suggested.

California Delta Bay Project

Although this conference in Amsterdam had a clear tilt toward the accomplishments of the Dutch, be it in Singapore or Dubai, the U.S. situation weighs heavily on the minds, and perhaps hearts too, of these experts. Consider the recent report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was also mentioned frequently. The Corps announced that more than 120 levees around the U.S.A. might fail during a major flood. As the The New York Times commented and the delegates here agreed: “New Orleans needs to remain an exception, rather than a sad model for the future.”

It is no secret that Louisiana has recruited a great deal of expertise from Europe, especially the Netherlands. Thus it was no surprise to find delegations from both Louisiana and Northern California’s Bay area in attendance – to present their situations and to exchange ideas and learn from their European and Asian counterparts.

In three quite different presentations, Karen Scarborough, undersecretary of the California Resources Agency, Col. Ron Light, District Engineer (Sacramento District), USACE and Gary Bobker, program director, for The Bay Institute, an NGO (non-government organization), clarified the issues facing the California Bay Delta. Though their approaches varied, their question was the same: “Will California be the next great catastrophe?”

The answer was “maybe” if we don’t start thinking about the future now. As Karen Scarborough described her area, climate change can potentially impact “levee vulnerability, seismic vulnerability and water conveyance” in and through both northern and southern California. Col. Light proposed a holistic approach to water management, remarking that “the Corps is in general under-funded.” Not a surprise to those involved with the New Orleans recovery, but truly ironic, because if there was one lesson to be learned at Aquaterra, it is that only when private industry, government policy, political will and public will unite do the funds begin to “flow” to create sustainable environmental policies, including dredging, flood damage control and coastal protection. In this way, “Go with the Flow” takes on an added meaning.

Day 3: Focus on Dredging

Days one and two of the conference tackled some essential issues like risk assessment and awareness, the growth of mega-cities, flood resiliency, flood insurance, and safety policies. And while dredging was in many instances a basic bread-and-butter element in the solutions presented, Day 3 was clearly “dredging day”.

The first keynote address of the day was presented by W. Haoyun, deputy director of the Taihu Basin Authority, China on Innovative Deltaic and Coastal Developments in Shanghai, outlining the flood regulation scheme in the Taihu Basin. This was followed by a keynote address by Hendrik Postma, general manager of Royal Boskalis Westminster’s Dredging Department on Eco-engineering, sustainable solutions for marine and inland water constructions and a third keynote address on The Economics of square meters vs. Cubic Meters: Reclamation Pays, by Mark Lindo of Van Oord N.V. Lindo is engineering manager in the Engineering & Estimating Department. Postma and Lindo described the role of dredging in managing coastal areas and for protection and sustainable development. They emphasized the economic feasibility of reclaimed land vs. the price of existing land in crowded coastal areas. Reclaimed land seems clearly to be a viable economic alternative for overcrowded coastal cities.

Taking a world view, one might say a socially responsible view, a partnership of companies is trying to apply the land reclamation principles, which are working for wealthy countries like Dubai, to lower-income countries. In an innovative effort, an initiative known as DUAL – Delta Urban Area Land development – has been launched by Arcadis Euroconsult, Royal Haskoning and Van Oord Dredging. They are conducting a scoping study of port cities worldwide that could qualify for a private-public partnership for land reclamation as a solution to urban land shortages in emerging nations. The aim is to benefit less wealthy populations both economically and socially, and through land development for the port and housing to jump start their economic motor. A pilot project is under consideration in Beira, Mozambique.

As the conference wound down on Friday afternoon, Gaele Rodenhuis, chairman of the International Advisory Committee of Aquaterra, attempted to sum up some of the lessons of the intensive three days of presentations. Given that people are clearly not inclined “to move from threatened areas, whether that be in the Netherlands or New Orleans, ongoing development is important for a healthy economy, without which living conditions would deteriorate and nature conservation efforts would dry up.” As an adjunct to that premise is the reality that the costs of land reclamation are competitive with the prices of existing land.

With the improvement in dredging equipment, “the case studies show that in cities such as Singapore, Shanghai and Rotterdam, reclamation pays.” Another aspect of this is the creation of islands in front of the coast and the development of rivers and lakes. “Such solutions are not only economically viable but can also be carried out in an ecologically responsible way,” concluded Rodenhuis. “The dredging industry is making great strides, and the Maasvlakte II development in Rotterdam proves how reclamation can go hand-in-hand with major nature conservation schemes.”

Whether you believe in climate change and rising sea levels like Al Gore, whose film has now won an Oscar, or are more concerned about the population explosion along coastal areas and deltas, the need to wisely manage our water resources for drinking, transportation, residential and commercial purposes is clear. It is a worldwide issue. With more than 600 delegates, speakers and exhibition visitors attending the conference, and almost 40 exhibition booths, this first edition of Aquaterra was an affirmation of this concern.

The next Aquaterra Forum is scheduled for February 2009. No doubt that between now and then, the focus on deltas and coastal water management will remain. Surely there will be many changes, some predicted and some not, in the next two years as the repercussions from climate and rising sea levels become more apparent.

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