“Before the Levees Break: A Plan to Save the Netherlands”

This pitch letter is part of The Open Notebook’s Pitch Database, which contains 290 successful pitches to a wide range of publications. To share your own successful pitch, please fill out this form.

The Story

“Before the Levees Break: A Plan to Save the Netherlands”
by David Wolman
Wired, December 2008

The Pitch

Delta Force 2200: “We will completely control the water.”

The Dutch want to climate-proof the nation’s coastline—all of it. After centuries playing defense against the encroaching North Sea, the Dutch government now wants to push back, securing the country for the next 200 years. The people with the most experience holding back the ocean are about to give engineers and planners from New Orleans to Singapore a preview of what it will take to cope with the coming floods.

Roughly half of Holland lies below sea level. In 1953, massive storms flooded 600 square miles of the country, killing 1,835 people. The disaster spurred an era of fortification. A program known as the Delta Force was launched, its lead players charged with keeping the water at bay—mainly with dikes, dams and weirs. The strategy worked well enough, but the sea has kept coming. New projections of sea-level rise—studies paid for by the Dutch and compiled by some of the same brains who sit on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—lit a fire under government bigwigs. So they put together an elite team of experts to devise a plan to prevent every last acre of the Netherlands from washing into the sea. The outspoken leader of the group—the Chuck Norris, if you will—is Cees Veerman, a farmer who holds a PhD in economics and who for many years was a high-ranking minister at The Hague.

The climate-proofing plan will be released this fall, but we can be the first to investigate—from the ground, from the air, and from the deck of a massive dredging ship—exactly what this colossal engineering endeavor will entail. (No US media and virtually no international media have covered this.)

Based on elaborate models weaving projections of climate, economic and demographic change over the next 200 years, the proposal calls for lengthening and linking boundary islands, extending the shoreline by as much as 3 miles, and
closing off where the Rhine flows freely into Rotterdam. The goal, in the words of lead engineer Marcel Stive, sounds simple: “We will completely control the water.” To do that will require dredging and filling in 100 to 200 million cubic meters of sand annually. (For comparison, 200 million cubic meters is about what the UAE has dredged to build those island resorts in Dubai.) Stive, Veerman and company want to move an equivalent volume of sand every year for the next century. Estimated cost: around $1.4 billion a year—a bargain, insists Stive, considering the stakes. “Our economy will only become
more dependent on places like Amsterdam and Rotterdam,” he says. “We must invest in these coastal cities of the future,” not to mention prevent possible disasters a la Katrina.

Still another section of the plan was hatched more than 20 years ago by a visionary—some would say quixotic—planner named Ronald Waterman (seriously), who has consulted on coastal fortification and construction projects from Osaka to Miami. The “Waterman Plan” will fill in miles of coastline from The Hague, south to the Hook of Holland near Rotterdam, creating tens of thousands of acres of commercial, residential and reclamation land.

This story isn’t just about a proposal. Already the Dutch are moving some 50 million cubic meters of sediment every year, just to maintain the country’s present-day shoreline and to keep rivers from flooding farmland. Showcasing a few marquee projects underway will be the perfect entrée into this examination of one of the most ambitious, if not audacious, acts of self-defense in the history of human-induced climate change.

Water is coming, into Copenhagen, LA, Manila, London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo… and we’re kidding ourselves if we think some wind turbines and recycled cereal boxes will do much to stop it. (Mitigate it down the road, maybe. But stop it? Come now.) The Dutch get this, and their aggressive response serves as a model for other coastal cities and counties that will face oceanic inundation in the future.

Skip to content