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- Political Sciences / Town and Country Planning - University of Amsterdam
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"The journey is an award", is an old Chinese proverb.
Amsterdam is the city where I'am born and still living. The city is part of a large metropolitan area, stretching from Brussels to Amsterdam. My story is focussed on the specific characteristics of this area where I'm living, and of Tibet, the country I visited twice.
The Amsterdam area is geographically formed by a river delta in the Netherlands and Belgium, the confluence of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Schelde. As the Rhine, streaming downwards from the mountains in Switzerland, contributes most of the water, the shorter term "Rhine Delta" is commonly used.
In this "Rhine Delta" nowadays are living more than 20 million people below the mean sea level (roughly 0-6 meters). Near to Amsterdam, other cities in this area are Brussels, Antwerp, Brugge, Gent, Vlissingen, Middelburg, Breda, Dordrecht, Rotterdam, 'Hertogenbosch, Delft, Gouda, The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem and Utrecht. Several of these cities are accessible from Amsterdam at a distance of up to 2 hours by TGV speed train. Life in this area is safeguarded predominantly by an ongoing 24/7 guarding of the dikes along the sea shores and the banks of the three rivers by the governmental water boards (in Dutch: "waterschappen"). These boards are charged with managing water barriers, waterways, water levels, water quality and sewage treatment in their districts. `As regional water authorities they are among the oldest forms of local government, some of them having been founded in the 13th century in the coast regions of Belgium and the Netherlands. In times of crisis (breakthroughs of dikes or the threat thereof) they serve as Directors of the country, the Public Works Department.
The Netherlands is a country where 60 percent of the nation's gross domestic product is produced below sea level. Protecting the country from storms and floods isn't treated here merely as a burden or a political football but as an economic and architectural challenge and opportunity. The dikes are our life saving borders between water and land.
Past generations have lost in the last 1.000 years some land to the rivers and the sea. In the same period the rivers and sea have delivered us also a lot of new land. This 24/7 struggle with the forces of water is a way of living between taking and giving land, between life and death.
This historical attitude is the driving force, which has upgraded "water management" to a top academical specialty. One of the departments of the world known Technical University of Delft is its highly specialized Department of Water Management and Construction Works. Generations of scientists here are trained and have built up a large extent of knowledge in all kinds of water management and construction.
Water management here depends on hard science and meticulous study. Other countries in the world use phrases like once-in-a-century storm. The Delft scientists, with a knowledge of water, tides and floods honed by painful experience, can calculate to the centimeter — and the Dutch government legislates accordingly — exactly how high or low to position hundreds of dikes along rivers and other waterways to anticipate storms they estimate will occur once every 25 years, or every 1,000 years, or every 10,000.
In the weapon of Zeeland, one of the coastal provinces, is written in Latin "Luctor et Emergo" what means "I am struggling and will come back floating to the surface".
Our countryname is simply 'the low lands at the sea': "Nederland", "The Netherlands", " Pays-Bas", "هولندا", "Países Bajos", "荷兰", "països Baixos", "Niederlande", "Paesi Bassi", "Alankomaat", "Ολλανδία", "Nederländerna", "הולנד", "Belanda", "ｵﾗﾝﾀﾞ", " Holanda", "네덜란드", "Nīderlande", "Нидерланды", "Yr Iseldiroedd", "Hollanda""Țările de Jos" , "Холандија", "Holandsko", "هلند","Nyderlandai", "Holland", "네덜란드", "Nizozemsko".
It has been to the Netherlands, not surprisingly, that some American officials, planners, engineers, architects and others have been looking lately. New York is not Rotterdam (or Venice or New Orleans, for that matter); it's not mostly below or barely above sea level. But it's not adapted to what seems likely to be increasingly frequent extreme storm surges. And the question is how the Dutch engineers have more or less successfully held back the sea for centuries and thrived. For let us remember that as recently as 60 years ago (in geological eras "a split second ago") the North Sea disastrously flooded in 1953, devastating the southwest of this country and killing 1,835 people in a single night. In that same disastrous night in England, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. 28 were killed in West Flanders, Belgium. After that catastrophic combination of high tide and tempestuous winds, the Dutch engineers had to devise immediately an ingenious new network of dams, sluices and barriers called the "Deltaworks".
The "Delta Works" started in 1953 and were completed in 1998 (about 45 years later) upon completion of the last storm surge barrier "Maeslantkering", one giant movable sea gate guarding Europe's largest seaport and the nearly located city of Rotterdam. Only two river mouths of the existing shipping routes remained open. The first one of the rivers Rhine and Maes to the port of Rotterdam. And the second one of the river Schelde to the port of Antwerp, Europe's second largest seaport. The Maeslantkering is a new type of storm barrier with two moveable arms, as big and spectacular as "a pair of Eiffel towers on their sides", which can completely be pulled away or pushed forward. Opening or closing the arms of this barrier is a fully automated process. Before 1998, in an earlier stage, three other estuary mouths of the Oosterschelde, the Haringvliet and the Grevelingen were already blocked. This already had reduced the length of the dikes exposed to the sea by approximately 400 miles (640 km).
The history of trying to hold back the sea for centuries is nowadays changing, as the Dutch engineers in the end realize they are facing a losing battle. In 2013 the most recent policy is: "letting the water in", The evidence is leading them to undertake what may seem, at first blush, a counterintuitive approach, a kind of about-face. The engineers are starting to let the water in. This new strategy has one slogan "Room for the River". They are contriving to live with nature, rather than fight what will inevitably be, - they have come to realize in the end - a losing battle. Sea barriers sufficed half a century ago; but they're disruptive to the ecology and are built only so high, while the waters keep rising. Instead of "flood control" the new policy is "controlled flooding".
The centerpiece of the new Dutch water management now is an € 2,3 billion program of the Government. It consists of nearly 40 interconnected infrastructure projects to mitigate climate change along the waterways and rivers. Dikes are being lowered, spillways created. As a consequence of these decisions you can imagine there were many legal battles, public protests, people being uprooted, lands repurposed. But the benefits are clear and widely shared. Hard decisions need to be made to cope with rising waters and severe weather. The new calculations are expected to be completed in 2015. For the three rivers an upgrade is in operations, which is expected to be finished in 2017.
Two journeys gave me in the last ten years a clear new insight, an award.
In the years 2006 and 2008 I was traveling twice to Tibet.
Tibet is a beautiful country where 15 million people (50% original Tibetans and 50% Chinese) are living. The whole area is in sqkm's roughly as big as Europe where a total of 500 million inhabitants have their existence.
In the first journey (in 2006) I travelled up to a mean height of 3.500 meters above the mean sea level. In the second one (in 2008) I climbed up to 6.000 meters on the mount Kailash. The Tibetan name for the mountain is "precious jewel of snow".Tibetan Buddhists see the mountain as the navel of the universe. This mountain lies near the source of some of the longest rivers in Asia: the Indus River, the Brahmaputra River, and the Ganges River. Tibet has therefore been called the "Water Tower" of Asia. And China is therefore investing heavily in water projects in Tibet.
The higher I climbed above the sea level all the more my body was in need of oxygen. For my survival I moved slowly, breathed very regularly, drank gallons of water and slept down in the most peaceful and coldest nights ever. Though especially prepared for this experiences, I was overwhelmed by them. Up there on "the roof of the world" I had some moments of full insight into the existential differences between Tibet and the Netherlands, the differences of life on 6.000 m above the mean sea level, or 6 m below it.
These journeys were an impressive award.