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#1. The threat of the rivers


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The Overdiepse polder has been redeveloped to accommodate floods that can statistically occur every 25 years. There will be three or four meters of water. I know the flood will come. "

Stan Fleerakkers, farmer in the Overdiepse polder

the podcast

A story broadcasted on

La Radio Suisse Romande (RSR)

Radio France Internationale (RFI)

La Radio nationale Belge (RTBF)


french language

Length : 25mn


It is a beautiful spring morning on the Overdiepse polder, an oval strip of land of about 5000 meters long by 1500 meters wide. It was won in the early twentieth century on swamps, like so much other land in the Netherlands. Here, between two branches of the Meuse that flows a couple of miles further into the great delta of Zeeland, Stan Fleerakkers, 47, has owned a farm and a house for the past twenty years. In 1999, Stan married Yvonne, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village, who had expanded his farm twenty-three years earlier by moving it to the polder. Together, they took over the farm from Yvonne's father. They worked, they enlarged, they had three children - two boys and a girl - of which Niek, the eldest, is 16 years old.


Today, they manage an 80 ha farm and a hundred cows. Stan is involved in livestock farming and milk production, which is mainly processed into dairy products at a nearby factory, and then mainly sold abroad. A subcontractor helps Stan cultivate his grassland and corn-grown land to feed the cows, as well as potatoes and onions, which he sells. Stan wants to run his farm for "several decades", and hopes that one of his children will take over from him.

As usual on the flat lands of North Brabant, a large southern province of the Netherlands, the sky seems endless, the horizon extends as far as the eye can see. Fields, one or two hedges, four or five cows, five or six sheep, a few farms perched on mounds, a forest in the distance. The light, between milky yellow and light blue, is intense. After touring his entire farm with visitors, Stan pauses. "The spring is dry right now, it's been several years now," he observes. "It's a pity, because this is when we need rain for the plants to grow. On the other hand, in the summer, close  to harvest-time, we are experiencing violent thunderstorms for three years in a row, flooding our fields. This is problematic because the potatoes are lost if the plant remains submerged for more than 24 hours.”


But these problems remain marginal. The farm is quite prosperous because of the global demand for dairy products. "Dutch milk is of good quality, it is in great demand in Europe and even more so in China. Even if we are dependent on world milk prices, with good and bad years, in the end we make a living,” Stan admits. In front of the shed where the cows spend most of their time, Niek and his little brother are having fun with a football. Both of them seem carefree, they do not really know what job they want to do later. "But I do not see myself going back to the farm to take care of the cows," says Niek. Global warming is the least of his concerns: "Why worry? We live in a rich country, the Netherlands is not a country of natural disasters”.

The Overdiepse polder


Stan, working at the  Overdiepse polder



Museum commemorating the 1953 floods

De Ramp / The Flood


Collective book of documentary photography on the 1953 flood in the Netherlands

Le Rijkswaterstaat


Dutch Government Water Management Agency

Delta Plan works


Presentation site

When reminded, however, Niek remembers the 1953 flood. He heard about it. That year, on the night of 31 January to 1 February, a strong storm in the North Sea mixed with exceptionally high tides increased pressure on the dikes of the large polder islands of Zeeland, as well as on the shores of South Holland and North Brabant. Several dikes, which had not been maintained since the beginning of the Second World War, or not sufficiently so, gave way hundreds of meters. some were even totally submerged. Within two days, and following two high tides, the floods invaded nearly 2,000 km2 of land – that is 6% of the Dutch area of the time. Several Zeeland islands have been completely swallowed up. The human toll was terrible: more than 1,800 dead, more than 72,000 refugees. More than 40,000 head of cattle, cattle or pigs, were washed away.

In Ouwerkerk, Zeeland, the Watersnoodmuseum commemorates this tragic event. It can be accessed via a small road on a dike several meters high, which hides the North Sea: when the tide is high, the road is below sea level. Jaap Schoof, manager of the museum’s Oral history project, explains how he escaped from the horror. "I remember the night the storm came. I was 8 years old, my parents were farmers in Zeeland. We were sleeping in the farm, which, as is always the case in the Netherlands, is built at a higher level than the land to protect them from floods.. The storm and rain were intense. Gradually, the waves invaded the fields below. For 24 hours, we heard the cows and horses howling. Then, gradually, all was quiet: all the animals had drowned. On the radio, we heard that a dike near the farm had given way to the force of the tide. The next day the water continued to rise, so we took refuge on the top floor of the house. Fortunately, fishermen came to save us. They put us in their boat and took us to Dordrecht, a nearby town that had been relatively untouched by the waves. There, I learned that my aunt and grandmother had drowned in the floods." 65 years later, Jaap Schoof fights back his tears. Dordrecht is located 15 kilometers from the Overdiepse polder.


The 1953 floods have been widely documented in a series of photographic reports signed Ed van der Elsken, Ed van Wijk, Ad Windig ... Often commissioned by the Dutch government, as poignant as they are treated aesthetically, these reports show, among other things, that rescue operations were supported by helicopters. For the first time, the technical possibilities allowed the Netherlands to act quickly in the face of this new submersion. The 1953 tsunami is just the latest in a long series of particularly deadly floods that have hit the Dutch shores since immemorial times. A fresco in the Watersnoodmuseum enumerates them, five or six per century ending each time with at least several dozen deaths, and up to several tens of thousands of deaths. Shortly before the year 1300, the most spectacular of them gave birth to the Zuydersee, the inland sea that separates Holland from Friesland.


With almost a third of their area located at or below sea level, the fight against rising waters was essential for the Netherlands’ existence. In 1293, they invented elected local assemblies, the "water committees" (waterschappen), to monitor the threat of the waves in the villages. Then, in the eighteenth century, they founded a "Royal Water Agency" (Rijkstwaterstaat) to coordinate the waterschappen efforts across the country. This permanent risk even influenced the imagination: so was created the character of little Hans Brinker, a young boy known for having saved his village by plugging a hole in a dike with his finger for a whole night. This children's tale is one of the most famous in the Netherlands, where several Hans Brinker statues can be found.


After the 1953 floods the Dutch state reacted swiftly. Under the impetus of the engineer Johan van Veen, the Rijkswaterstaat implemented a plan of gigantic works to secure the southern coast of the Netherlands. Built between 1957 and 1986 in the provinces of Zeeland and South Holland, where three major European rivers - the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt - merge into a large delta to jump into the North Sea, this “Delta Plan” cost about 12 billion current euros. It involved building a dozen monumental interlinked works, whose main function is to prohibit the North Sea from overflowing into the most densely populated areas of the country. The Maeslantkering, a kind of double metal portico that can close to block access to the port of Rotterdam, is probably the most famous of these works. The Haaringvlietluizen, a gigantic removable concrete and steel lock blocking the North Sea access to Zeeland, is one of the most impressive.


The Hollandsche IJsselkering looks like two Tower Bridges on the IJssel River, five kilometers east of Rotterdam. It is both the oldest and the most ingenious of all: built in 1958, its various barriers rise and fall, either blocking the waves or allowing ships of all sizes to pass; they host a motor bridge as well as a maritime and fluvial traffic control station. "If the waves coming from the sea are ready to enter the IJssel, we are warned 24 hours in advance and can completely lower the barrier in about twenty minutes," says Jan van den Bogerd, an operator in charge of river traffic. And if the river overflows, could one also release its waves towards the sea? "Yes, we can do that too, but it takes much longer: the work was not designed for that".

"The Delta Plan works were designed to address four main challenges," says Marjan Daenen, team leader at Haringvlietsluizen. "First, limit the mileage of the flood plains by blocking the access of the sea to the estuaries. Second, limit the strength of the waves by compartmentalizing the water. Third, respect the natural order by promoting the flow of aquatic animals and human beings. Finally, learn and benefit from experience by starting to build the smaller structure and ending with the largest.” "My grandfather had experienced the floods of 1953 and how strong the elements could be," adds Paul Fortuin, grandson of Johan van Veen and climate advisor at the Rijkswaterstaat. "He was not trying to build against nature, but with it. These large structures, which have managed to preserve or even foster biodiversity in these fragile brackish environments, have also proved their effectiveness against climate change: despite several threatening storms in recent decades, in 1991 for example, there has been no sea flood since their construction."


The threat of the rivers
Copyrights: Benjamin Bibas - Samuel Turpin / HCCS
Length : 03mn11s
  • threat rivers Netherlands
deuxième tiers monde

The 1953 floods are not due to climate change, nobody claims that. "

Dennis van Berkel, Legal Counsel Urgenda Foundation

The Urgenda foundation, based in Amsterdam, aims to contribute to a "sustainable society" by promoting the development of the "circular economy" and "renewable energies". One of their managers is Pier Vellinga, also director of the Climate Program at the University of Wageningen and Professor of Climate Change at the Free University (VU) in Amsterdam. "I was born in 1950," he says. "At the age of 3, my family welcomed refugees – not from Syria, but from Zeeland. They fled the terrible floods that had occurred in this region. I have to believe that it had a profound impact on me: once I was old enough to study, I chose coastal engineering. Our country is vulnerable to floods, I’ve always thought that everything needed to be done to prevent them. I first studied the natural environment, writing my thesis on the resistance of Dutch sand dunes to intense storms from the North Sea. I then discovered that what counts is not so much the height of the dunes as their width: this is what allows them to resist when the level of a raging sea rises by 4 or 5 meters."

"A little later, in 1983, I began to read the first articles/research on climate change. By discovering new information, concerning the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet for example, I realized that the sea level could rise up to 4 or 5 meters in two or three centuries if nothing was done, and I immediately thought of the consequences this could have for the Netherlands: our shores are so fragile, the sandy beaches can be swept away by a simple change in wind direction or strength, by a slight rising of the sea level ... And at the same time, if all this is true, I thought to myself, there is a lot of work ahead for coastal engineers!"



"In 1988, I went to Toronto for one of the first international conferences on climate change. I met the Dutch Minister of the Environment, who asked me to join his cabinet. I accepted and, a year later, I was the secretary of the very first interministerial conference on climate change, which took place in Noordwijk, Holland. Some 60 environment ministers were present, including the US, Soviet and Japanese ministers. The conference was a success: for the first time, government officials pledged to cut CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020 compared to the 1990 levels, which has since remained the benchmark in climate negotiations. In the process, I took part in the first work of the International Panel of Experts on Climate (IPCC), created in 1988. I then co-wrote one of the first academic articles advocating a maximum temperature increase of 2°C compared to pre-industrial times. But from the 1990s onwards, the oil, chemical and automotive industries began to react, especially in the United States. They invested hundreds of millions of dollars to challenge scientific research and influence decision-makers. Climate change became a secondary problem. The pro-oil think tanks had governments’ ears. They made fun of me and my colleagues, I was even threatened physically. It was a hard time, really. In 2009, at last, COP15 in Copenhagen, despite its failure, introduced the 2°C ceiling. And in 2015, thanks to the support of the United States and China, COP21 in France adopted a global agenda for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, based on commitments that should have been taken in 1992 at the UN Rio Earth Summit."

"As a result, current emissions in the Netherlands have remained high: 9.9 tons of CO2 per year and per capita in 2014, which is 50% more than the EU average. Why? Because in the 1960s, we discovered Europe's largest natural gas reserves off Europe's coast, in addition to North Sea oil. These reserves were used by Shell, a major oil company registered in The Hague, to develop a large petrochemical complex around the port of Rotterdam, which has long been the world's largest port. Shell also used the reserves to supply Schiphol airport with kerosene. This export-oriented oil-industrial complex has strongly shaped the Dutch economy over the past 50 years, especially as economic and political elites often switched from Shell's board of directors to that of the Port of Rotterdam, or of Schiphol airport, before being appointed to the government. Another CO2-intensive sector is Dutch agriculture: to respond to the famine that hit the Netherlands at the end of the Second World War, it was developed on a very intensive model with a particular reliance on petrochemicals, a model that has inspired European agricultural policy. It has been a source of wealth for the Netherlands since the second half of the twentieth century, but also contributes to making this country one of the biggest polluters in the world. And this situation is difficult to change because it is based on the work of industrial giants that are profit-oriented and have a short term vision. They find it very difficult to shift to a sustainable, long-term business."

"In 2007 and given this context, I joined force with lawyer and economist Marjan Minnesma and other friends, to create the NGO Urgenda. Our aim was not to alert and criticize, but to offer decision-makers possible solutions to mitigate climate change. One of us, attorney Roger Cox, was deeply impressed by his meeting with Al Gore, the former US Vice President and author of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, about human inaction on climate change. He decided to file a legal complaint in order to force the Dutch state to act. On June 24th, 2015, the District Court of The Hague ruled in favor of Urgenda, ordering the Dutch state to do the minimum to which it had committed internationally, i.e. to reduce the kingdom’s GHG emissions by at least 25% by 2020 compared to 1990". This historic judgment - the first time a state was condemned to act against climate change - was confirmed by the Hague Court of Appeal on October 9th, 2018. It symbolizes a considerable change of trajectory for the country's CO2 emissions: in 2017, the Netherlands' GHG emissions were only 13% lower than the 1990 levels. "This judgment concretely means the closure of Dutch coal power plants in the very near future" clarifies Pier Vellinga.

The actions of the Dutch government are insufficient to prevent the dangers of climate change. The Netherlands knowingly exposes their citizens to danger."

Extracts from the argument Urgenda VS Dutch state

On 24 June 2015, the District Court of The Hague condemned the Dutch State to implement policies to reduce the Netherlands greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 25% by 2020 compared to the level of 1990. The lawsuit was brought by Urgenda foundation, whose lawyer Roger Cox elaborated in five years the following argument.

1) As the Dutch Supreme Court has repeatedly stated, the state has a duty to protect its people and can be held legally responsible if it does not take the necessary measures to prevent serious harm to them;

2) The history and state of science show that climate change can have catastrophic consequences for the Dutch;

3) The state has the means to act by impelling a policy of significant reduction of GHG emissions, as it has been committed several times by validating for example the IPCC 4th and 5th reports, as well as the conclusions of the successive international climate conferences that set a path for OECD countries to reduce GHG emissions by 25% to 40% by 2020 compared to the 1990 levels;

4) The state therefore has the duty to act accordingly.


The conviction of the Dutch state was upheld on appeal on 9 October 2018.

The experts

The 2°C limit: a Dutch story"

Pier Vellinga, chairman in Climate and Water at Wageningen University (WUR),  Director of the Wageningen University climate program

Author of: "The greenhouse marathon: A proposal for a global strategy"

In January 1991, Pier Vellinga and Dutch researcher Robert Swart published a landmark article in the review Climatic Change (Springer): "The Greenhouse Marathon, a proposal for a global strategy". Taking up early works of American economist William Nordhaus, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics 2018 for his integration of the effects of climate change into economic models, they also relied on the work of ecologists of the 1980s showing that trees cannot adapt to an average temperature increase of more than 2°C per century.


They derived one of the first models for limiting global greenhouse gas emissions, by schematizing their thinking in the form of a traffic light: green for an increase in global average temperature between 1°C and 1.5°C, orange between 1.5°C and 2°C, red above 2°C. This modeling influenced the vocabulary of subsequent international climate negotiations (UNFCC).

expert cachemire

Copyrights Leonard Pongo / NOOR

The Haringvlitsluizen dam, set up within the Delta plan, aims to protect aims to protect the Dutch shore from the storms of the North Sea

The rivers
pier velinga.jpg

Pier Vellinga

Chairman in Climate and Water at Wageningen University (WUR),  Director of the Wageningen University climate program

"Today," he continues, "the biggest threat posed by climate change in the Netherlands comes not so much from the sea as from the rivers. The government realized this in 1995, when a totally unexpected flood occurred in the Delta region: it had to order the emergency evacuation of 200,000 people. What is the current phenomenon? On the one hand, the flow of the rivers is getting bigger, because the precipitation has increased by 30% in a century in the Netherlands, even if they are more irregular than before. On the other hand, the climate change generates a rise of the oceans of up to 1 m by 2100 according to Rijkswaterstaat, up to 1.3 m according to the University of Utrecht. As a result, the North Sea tends to push Dutch rivers back into the land, making any river flood potentially very dangerous because the water will not withdraw: it is likely to invade two thirds of the Netherlands, and to stay on very densely populated areas for months. This phenomenon is highly sensitive in the region of Rotterdam and Dordrecht, where several rivers meet the sea".

In the early 2000s, Rijkswaterstaat agents came to the Overdiepse polder to meet the 17 local farmers. They came bearing important news: the polder would become a priority flood zone in case of rising fluvial waters, in order to prevent flooding in cities downstream of the Meuse. The farmers had to move with their families to other places in the Netherlands and were told they would receive financial compensation. The farmers did not accept these conditions. They stuck together to try to negotiate with the government. Stan Fleerakkers became one of their spokespersons. "It was a moment of solidarity," he recalls. "Despondency and fear gave way to action. More than ten years of ups and downs have been necessary to come to a consensus. Some farmers have agreed to leave, mostly to Friesland or Groningen in the north of the country, where land remains to be exploited. With Yvonne, my wife, we did everything we could to stay." "I was born nearby”, says Yvonne. “My father, my mother and my uncle have long farmed on this polder, I've lived here for 43 years, we have all our friends here". "At first, the situation was very distressing to manage, but in the end we did well, we are proud of the work done in fifteen years." "Finally, 8 farms remain in Overdiepse," says Stan. "We proposed to keep on farming on the polder. In 2013, rather than being compensated for leaving, we asked for and obtained the construction of new homes for our families, as well as new, more modern equipment for raising livestock and cultivating the land. The polder has been completely remolded and redeveloped. We were able to acquire the lands of our former neighbors at preferential prices. The dykes have been lowered, but our homes and farms are now raised on mounds 6 meters high. This is how our ancestors used to protect themselves from the rising waters”.

The redevelopment of the Overdiepse polder is part of the "Room for the River" program, designed in the early 2000s and implemented by the Rijkswaterstaat between 2006 and 2016. This consists of a series of measures - widen the river bed, push back the dikes, widen the banks and dig side plains ... and even "de-polderize" in certain places - to ensure that the rivers that surround the Randstad conurbation (Amsterdam - Rotterdam - The Hague - Utrecht) and its 8 million inhabitants do not overflow. But these immense efforts may not be enough. "Climate change always comes as a surprise, especially in coastal areas, which are very sensitive," says Pier Vellinga. "Who could have predicted hurricane Katrina on Louisiana in 2005, hurricane Sandy on New York in 2012? Who could have imagined that since 1970, the average temperatures would increase by 2°C in the Netherlands? The problem is that we base our risk forecasts on historical statistics. But by definition, climate change is disrupting these forecasts ... "

In 2005, the Dutch government invested 80 million euros in a study on the reliability of river embankments. Against all odds, this study showed a high vulnerability: several dikes had a 10% chance of giving way in the next twenty years. In 2008, a new, even greater river embankment strengthening plan, was developed. This "Delta 2 Plan" or "Delta Program", whose implementation began in 2015, covers 1,500 km of waterways out of total the 1,700 km. It intends to withstand a 30% increase in river flow and an average rise of 1 m compared to their current level. At least 20 additional billion euros will be invested over thirty years. The aim is not so much to raise dikes as to widen them to make them unbreakable, to create terraces of several hundred meters wide on which it will also be possible to build houses, to cultivate ... Overall, the plan involves an in-depth modification of the Dutch river banks and their landscapes.

The Netherlands is developing state-of-the-art engineering, such as farms and floating greenhouses to adapt to floods and rising water levels.

Seal hunt. It is now practiced essentially as a leisure activity


Watching the river IJssel flirt with the foot of the ten-storey buildings built along its banks in the eastern suburbs of Rotterdam, Paul Fortuin meditates: "I think it's a good thing that Urgenda has won his lawsuit against the Dutch government. This will push the Rijkswaterstaat to do even more and better to protect the population." In the distance, the incessant ballet of cars continues along the interchanges and expressways. "Sometimes, I wonder if the Dutch are well aware of the efforts made to protect them from the risk of flooding, if they are well aware that this risk still exists ..."

This is a risk Stan Fleerakkers lives with daily. "The Overdiepse polder has been redeveloped to accommodate floods that can statistically occur every 25 years. A number of conditions are needed: intense rains lasting weeks in France or Belgium, a large northwestern wind storm in the North Sea and the surge of very strong tides. I know from experience that on that day, the sky will be threatening, heavy, black. The visit of the Rijkswaterstaat dates back to the early 2000s, we are in 2018, I know that the flood will come. When it comes, I will be notified 48 hours in advance. I think I will be scared because it must be impressive to see so much water on these fields that I take care of every day. But it should not rise more than 3 or 4 meters above the level of the river, and my house and the farm are 6 meters high. So my family and I will be safe. My animals too. Our fields will be swallowed some time but we will be offered a financial compensation, and after the flood we will be able to start cultivating again. These conditions were initially difficult to accept, but in the end they suit me: if there is a flood, this redevelopment of the polder will help save lives, maybe even millions of lives, in the most populated areas of the country”.

dans les mines 2
impact environnement

On his polder, Stan can see the Dutch landscape change as a result of climate change. At its feet, under the cornfields that have just been harvested, the earth is hard, fragmented, broken up. "We need to take better care of our land," he says. "We need to reduce our consumption of chemical inputs, if only to make the land more productive. I noticed that when I plant clover in my fields, the grass grows there as well as when I use fertilizers. And it's better for my cows. And their milk will be better. And I contribute to lowering CO2 emissions.” He adds, smiling: "... and I therefore reduce the risk of flooding!” Stan turns his gaze eastward. 5 or 10 kilometers away, behind the forest, he can see some scattered wind turbines which, in 2011 and then in 2016, were installed near the neighboring town of ’s-Hertogenbosch. Conversely, when he turns his gaze westward just two kilometers beyond the polder, he sees the smoking chimney of unit 9 - the last of the (coal-powered) Amer power plant units still in operation. Inaugurated in 1952, it is located at the entrance to the De Biesbosch National Park, a wetland where the Meuse and the North Sea meet. Unit 8 of the plant stopped in 2015, unit 9 "should close soon", believes Stan, confirming the predictions of Pier Vellinga.

His story is  not over yet either. A major player via Urgenda in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands, he is equally active on adaptation. "The Dutch adaptation strategy to climate change is not just about strengthening river embankments," he says. "There is also a whole strategy for international development: three or four years ago, the government understood that climate change could be a new driver for the economy." It is true that Dutch cooperation in coastal engineering and offshore construction has never been so successful: the Dutch Water Authorities, a public agency that brings together the skills of the waterschappen to sell them internationally, has just published the "Blue Deal" roadmap gathering 40 projects involving Dutch water management engineering in countries notoriously impacted by climate change. "By the way, there's one more thing I'd like to tell you," Pier Vellinga concludes. "Worldwide, because of climate change, there are now 2 billion hectares of saline land, which has become unsuitable for agriculture because of rising sea levels. And in very densely populated areas like in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Ghana ... With interlocutors from other countries located in the northern half of Europe and facing the same problem, we have developed an agronomic research project to help grow some varieties of cereals and vegetables on saline soil. There is a real need, a real market on a global scale. I am sure Dutch know-how can help meet the food needs of countries threatened by climate change and rising sea levels ...”

Texts: Benjamin Bibas / La fabrique documentaire

Photographs: Leonard Pongo / NOOR

Translation: Carola van den Noord

Thanks to Dennis van Berkel, Jonathan Faydi

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