Dutch find a cure for rising damp - a town full of floating houses

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard

Catastrophe strikes. Melting ice and a freak storm combine to send monster waves crashing through the coastal barriers of the Netherlands, flooding the western provinces where millions live in drained polders below sea level. The Hague becomes uninhabitable. The low-lying suburbs of Amsterdam return to marshland, or open water.

Thanks to the twin effects of global warming - rising seas and heavier rain - this nightmare scenario is now more likely than ever. According to some estimates, it could happen before the end of the decade.

After conquering ever more land from the sea, the Dutch are being forced to surrender great chunks of it back to nature. Plans are being drawn up for 220,000 acres of farmland to be returned to river floodplains. A major construction programme of floating homes has started.

"We will have to relinquish space to water, and not win space from it, in order to curb the growing risk of disaster due to flooding," a recent study by Holland's water management ministry concluded.

Pieter van Geel, the Dutch environment secretary, said: "Half of our country is below sea level, and so beyond a certain level it is not possible to build dykes any more. If we have a sea level rise of two metres, we have no control, no possibility of solving that. It's unthinkable."

A study this month by the European Environment Agency found that average rainfall in part of northern European had already risen by up to 40 per cent since 1900.

Mr van Geel's working assumption is that the global sea levels will rise by anywhere from eight inches to three feet over the next century, but he said it could be much worse if the snow caps melt.
"I fear the problem is going to catch us within 25 years, and that is a very short period," he said.

At the village of Petten there is a 68-step dike that holds back the North Sea. It is part of an immense sea barrier that stretches like the Great Wall of China along the coastline of Noord Holland, plugging the gaps in the great sand dunes that act as a natural barrier.

From the top of the Petten barrier you can watch the waves crashing down on one side, five yards higher than the village on the other.

The village has already been demolished twice before by seas that were half a metre lower than now.

Further south, in Zeeland, more than 1,800 people were killed when freak tides smashed through the dikes in February 1953. It did not stop the Dutch pressing ahead with their war of conquest against the sea.

As recently as 1986 they created the new province of Flevoland - now bustling with new towns - from what was once the Zuider Sea. Dutch pioneers are already turning to floating houses. It is little wonder that the first floating village is under construction, at a semi-aquatic city for 20,000 people on IJburg on the east side of Amsterdam.

floating houses at IJburg

Floating houses designed by Art Zaaijer, near the visitors center at IJburg

The floating homes, built out of wood and aluminium on a polystyrene base, cost between 100,00 and 300,000.

They have little terraces, but no gardens. If the neighbours are a pest, the house can be towed to another spot by tugboat.

Professor Frits Schoute from Delft University predicts that entire floating cities will soon be built all over the world.

"If we turned off the diesel pumps working day and night to drain the land, two thirds of The Netherlands would be under water," he said. "We can't afford to keep doing this. The great Dutch battle against the sea has reached exhaustion."

(c) copyright The Daily Telegraph