Building higher and stronger dykes will not be enough to protect the world’s low-lying areas against rising sea levels and global warming, a conference heard on Wednesday.
Countries should also develop disaster management to raise safety and awareness, officials told an international conference on flood defences in the Netherlands, one of the world’s lowest-lying countries.
Many scientists fear rising temperatures, blamed mainly on heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels, will melt ice caps, raise sea levels by almost a metre (three feet) by the end of this century and bring more floods, droughts and storms.
“It is time for us to say goodbye to the traditional approach of higher and higher dykes and more and more powerful pumps,” said Melanie Schultz van Haegen, Dutch State Secretary for Transport, Public Works and Water Management.
“There is very little that can be built against the consequences of climate change.”
An effective approach would be to move dykes further from rivers to leave more space to hold flood water, lower land levels on flood plains and include dredging, hazard maps and flood-proof buildings, she said.
The Netherlands, two thirds of which lies below sea level, has battled for centuries to claw back land from the sea and protect itself against floods.
It has invested heavily to shore up coastal defences with high-tech dams, sluices, stronger dykes and flood barriers. Van Haegen said the government had recently set aside 2.2 billion euros ($2.8 billion) to make sure defences are maintained.
But the Dutch model of flood protection is too expensive for developing countries to imitate, said Michel Jerraud, head of the World Meteorological Organisation.
Instead, countries could use the Dutch experience in flood management, including early warnings and forecasts, to identify land that could be sacrificed to flooding in order to save more valuable areas, Jerraud said.
“One of the reasons for changing from flood defences to flood management is the impossibility to be protected from all floods,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.
“What we aim for is a new approach, to move from seeing floods only as negative to seeing also the positive aspects. For instance many flood plains are extremely fertile thanks to the sediments brought by floods.”
China, hit by a series of droughts and floods in the past several years, embraced a new strategy in 2003 trying to use flood water to solve drought problems, said Cheng Xiaotao of the Chinese Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research.
The world suffered 600 floods in the past two and a half years, which claimed the lives of about 19,000 people and caused $25 billion in damages, excluding December’s devastating tsunami in southeast Asia that killed more than 180,000.