Delta Deluge

Amsterdam, November 2010

Map of the 74% of the Netherlands that is above sea level. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Over half of the world population lives in delta and coastal communities, and the Netherlands is a prime example. Waterways provides irrigation for agriculture and attracts tourism. The downside is evident. Flooding can cause human casualties and huge economic damages. With climate change we will see more and heavier floods in the world’s deltas, and we should acknowledge the precarity of these fertile but overpopulated areas. This project is a research into the future of the Dutch delta as it is threatened by rising sea levels.

The Dutch are known for living on land formerly known as sea. As early as the 11th century, coastal areas were reclaimed from the sea by embankments. Large European rivers like the Meuse and the Rhine flow into the Dutch delta and these rivers often flooded. Living in the Netherlands was living with floods, whether is was the sea breaching dunes or the flooding of lands surrounding the rivers. To protect their reclaimed land the Dutch built dikes along rivers and large fortified dunes on the west coast. Today 26% of the Netherlands is below sea level, which also happens to be the economic centre. Nine million people live in this western part of the country and it is here were half of the Dutch GDP is created. Floods continue to pose a serious risk for the Dutch and their economic prosperity.

Weather signature of the 1953 flood. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Temperature’s rising

There has been a slow growing of awareness about the effects of climate change since the 1970s. The international community took the first steps in 1992 with the Kyoto Protocol to globally reduce greenhouse gasses. Unfortunately the world’s largest polluters; China, India, and The United States refused to take part in it, rendering it worthless from the start. Denying climate change is not uncommon amongst politicians. U.S. President George W. Bush said uncertainties in climate science were too great to demand direct action, and his administration put political pressure on scientists to understate global warming and downplay its effects.

Left: Flood warning. Right: Polder politics, the Delta commission. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the sense of urgency of climate change became more widespread with the movie ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (2006) by Al Gore, and the fourth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. For the first time the IPCC report clearly stated that climate change was man-made with a 90% certainty. The report warned that if no immediate action would be taken, temperatures could rise with 4.8°C by 2100, with catastrophic effects.

Left: The largest Delta cities. Right: Decline of global rice production and population growth. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Climate hype

The Dutch were in the spotlights when the IPCC listed them as one of the ten countries that would be first affected by the rising sea levels. Until then, the risk of flooding had been a neglected topic in the Netherlands. Now the Dutch government had gotten the message and installed a special commission called the Deltacommissie (delta commission) to prepared a Deltawet (delta law) that would prepare the Dutch for future scenarios. Current flood fortification standards had fallen behind, and it was calculated that a breach in the North sea barrier, however unlikely, would cause an estimated 400.000 deaths and cause 400 billion euro in damages.

In 2010 the political tide changed. The libertarian VVD became the largest party, a party that did not acknowledge climate change was man-made. They formed a government with the right-wing PVV who publicly said: “Stop spending money on a unproven climate hype”. Journalist Marcel Crok wrote a popular climate-denying bestseller in 2010: Staat van het klimaat (State of the Climate) in which he called the IPCC report ‘biased’. Although 97% of scientists agreed global warming was man-made, the Dutch were persuaded otherwise. A third of the Dutch did not believe climate change was caused by human activity. Under this government it is not surprising no action was taken to inform citizens about rising sea levels. The relation of the Dutch with water was actively promoted as ‘joyful’, with commercials showing happy swimming children with a styrofoam map of Holland.

IPCC scenario’s for global warming. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Dutch Delta Technology

"God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” is a famous saying Dutch engineers like to use in their presentations when they go around the world to sell ‘Dutch Delta Technology’. Centuries of experience have given the Dutch tremendous advantage in knowledge about water management. Dutch engineers are deployed around the world and considered highly skilled in offshore activities, dredging, and water management. If your export product is delta technology, rising sea levels offer a growing market. Dutch engineers are working in flood prone cities like Jakarta, in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and New York City after hurricane Sandy. As a sinking country, the Dutch are better in selling their climate expertise abroad than in informing its own citizens about the risks at home.

Climate refugees and global borders. Design: Ruben Pater, 2010.

Delta Cities

Worldwide 634 million people live in delta megacities like Tokyo, New York, Mumbai, Shanghai, Jakarta, and Dhaka. Western countries like the Netherlands, the U.K. and the U.S. have the funds to build expensive flood defenses and invest in urban planning, but not the megacities in Southeast Asia whose densely populated informal settlements make them much more vunerable to floods.

Another perspective is the food crisis. Due to draught and rising sea levels, food production is projected to drop the coming 50 years, while the world population is expected to grow to 14 billion by 2100. Most of the world’s rice is grown in Southeast Asia, and rising sea levels means more saltwater and less place to grow food. At the same time flora and fauna is projected to drop by 20-40% worldwide. This confluence of events challenges us to take collective action in the next 50 years.

”It is fair to say that modernization has not prepared us especially well to the impact of the ecological crisis. Instead of preparing themselves, they entirely forgot they would have to equip themselves emotionally, institutionally, and legally for the tasks of a politics of nature.” - Bruno Latour


Bruijn, Jan Anthonie and Meiny Prins. Orde op zaken. Verkiezingsprogramma VVD, 2010.
Latour, Bruno. “Politics of nature: East and West perspectives”, Ethics & Global Politics, 2011.
Pachauri, R.K. and Reisinger, A. (Eds.). Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007.