She loves the view. She loves to dock a boat just a few steps from her vegetable patch. She loves to spot beavers and eagles. There is also a reticence in her joy.
Van Lelieveld says, “The mixed feelings is that it wasn’t my neighbor’s property.” “I’m sad because of how sad my neighbor feels. Because he was giving away his land.”
The farm that was once her neighbor’s, and was surrounded by the river that posed a constant threat to it, is now flooded. It is intentionally flooded to absorb water as the river rises. Van Lelieveld can live there, even though it isn’t suitable for farming. A simple dike keeps her house and the homes of others on the street dry, even though their backyards aren’t.
All of this is part of an ambitious climate project appropriately named Room for the Rivers.
The Dutch have struggled for centuries against water intrusion on their low-lying country. More than a quarter of it lies below the sea level.
The Dutch example is not easily replicable. Its unique landscape, tradition of powersharing and water-aware culture make it difficult to replicate. There is still much to learn.
This vulnerability is only increasing due to the climate crisis. It’s not a problem for the future, but it is a problem in many parts of the world. It’s also important to get organized as governments and individuals make life-or-death decisions for the potential worse threats that could arise in a warmer world.
People around the globe are often in need of Dutch expertise when dealing with water problems. Cornelius Vermuyden was a Dutchman who helped King Charles I drain the marshes of England’s Cambridgeshire. The Dutch provided assistance to the US Government in 2012 when New York City was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. A Dutch company was contracted to rescue the Ever Given from the Suez Canal.
Climate change means that the same brute-force methods that worked for centuries are no longer sufficient. A dike will only be as large as it needs to collapse under its own weight. Heightening the risk of it collapsing only increases its vulnerability when it fails.
The Dutch government changed its approach in the 1990s. It began to understand that natural water bodies exist for good reason. One example is the low-lying, uninhabited land adjacent to rivers that could flood and help soak up water when it rains heavily.
This meant that the Dutch had to do something unusual: take down walls that used to hold back water and move people off the land.
“This is the result” of climate change
The headwaters from the rivers that drain into the Netherlands provide a glimpse into why this project is so important.
The Ahr, a tributary which snakes through picturesque west German wine country, lies 300 kilometers (186 mi) up the Rhine River. Van Lelieveld’s humble home is about 300 kilometers away.
In July, floodwaters rose higher than ever in Dernau’s collective memory. Dernau is a small village nestled between steep vineyard slopes.
Lea Kreuzberg (23), who was sitting in her apartment, above the winery that she runs with her father, on July 14, said “It’s difficult to find words for this.”
In June, flooding devastated Dernau in Germany’s Ahr Valley. Credit: Martin Bourke/CNN
In just a few hours floodwaters reached the courtyard and submerged the ground floor. Then they rose into her apartment. Kreuzberg, her boyfriend and two employees from the winery retreated to its top floor.
They shared a frightening night together, saving phone battery to communicate with Kreuzberg’s father, who was in Austria on vacation. The water eventually rose to the surface, but then it slowly receded. They were finally rescued at 5pm on the next day.
Kreuzbberg stated that the first days of the floods made her feel uncomfortable. She added, “When it started pouring a little more, the emotions rose up again and made me cry.”
“It will be difficult to live here when we return here,”
The human consequences of July’s flooding were devastating. It killed 133 people in the Rhineland Palatinate. 180 people were killed in Germany, while 39 were killed in Belgium. One victim was never found.
According to The European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites, nearly 15 cm (6 inches) of rainfall fell in 24 hours from July 14 to 15. This caused extensive damage not only in Germany, Belgium and France, but also in Luxembourg, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Limburg.
Franziska Schnitzler sees the connection when she stands in the ruins a family restaurant and hotel. It was demolished from its 350-year-old timber-frame home.
Schnitzler states, “We live with the climate change.” “And this is the outcome.”
Both young and old are facing a crisis of mental well-being as climate change impacts their mental health. Three people died in Dernau just days after the floods.
Schnitzler claims that it was the grandma who was one of my best friends. “One night she woken me up and said, “My grandma,” Schnitzler says.
“It was so hard to lose someone after a flood.”
The Netherlands needs to wake-up
The Dutch people who gave up their land and homes in the Netherlands didn’t do it for themselves. They did it for others. They were asked if they would sacrifice their homes to save flood-affected residents of cities up-and-down-river.
Hans Brouwer, who has been managing projects for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management in the Netherlands for many years, said that it was major flooding by rivers in 1993 and 1995 which served as “a wake up call”.
He recalls that “we focused for decades upon the sea, and protecting us from storm surges,” “And then, we were shocked by our rivers. In ’95, it was decided to evacuate 25% of a million people. This really made an impression.
These floods occurred at the same time as some of the first reports by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which rang the alarm bells for climate change.
Brouwer stated, “We realized that we could expect even more water to the rivers, but at the same it would be difficult for us to get rid of that amount of water due to sea-level rise.”
Nol Hoijmaijer’s farm was moved to a mound 20 feet high, so that the floodplain could be used by the surrounding fields. Credit: Martin Bourke/CNN
Brouwer’s friends visited Nol Hooijmaijers 15 years ago. They told him that the eye-shaped land that he and 17 families called home would soon have to be made into a floodplain.
“We had been through 93 and 95. So we knew that something would need to be done. “What that was, we didn’t know,” Hooijmaijers now 72 said. “Then the government came and said this area might be used for floodplains, yeah, that’s a huge surprise.”
“We were convinced that we could stay here and continue to farm for generations.”
He and his fellow farmers decided to get together and “try and turn a danger into an opportunity.”
While some people fled to avoid the heartache, Hooijmaijers’ wife and seven other families decided that they would stay. They convinced the government that they would build six-meter high artificial dwelling mounds or “terps” on which they could relocate their farms and homes. Floodwater was allowed to flow over the land because the northern dike that had protected it was lowered.
Change, even when it breaks you heart
The Room for the Rivers project is a testament to planning and foresight. It also shows what can be achieved when citizens and government work together. A total of 32 projects costing $2.66 billion have meant that Dutch rivers can now absorb 25% more water in comparison to 1995.
Van Lelieveld was there to watch the river rise, pick up speed and turn brown from the debris and silt during July’s huge rainfall.
“It’s then that one can see the function and the region because we didn’t have any problems with high water here,” she stated. “I hope people understand what I have sacrificed to do that.
Brouwer described a “paradigm shifting” in which engineers realized they didn’t always understand nature’s actions, but they took nature seriously.
Van Lelieveld explained that the area in which he lives was designed using a century-old chart — “not knowing exactly how it functioned at that time, yet having confidence that nature made the right decisions.”
The project created wetlands that flooded the farm of her former neighbor. They are now home to huge flocks birds. She thinks back to the struggle the farmer had to win fair compensation for his land when she gets out on her boat.
“On one hand, it’s something I don’t dare enjoy, because I experienced that sadness, as well as saw what it did to other people,” she stated.
“But on the contrary, I’m proud about what we have achieved in this area. It’s possible to be an example.