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To fight climate change, New York goes Dutch

The Netherlands is a country that, in some sense, shouldn’t exist.

Thirty percent of the country is below sea level, and would sit under the ocean were it not for centuries of effort by the Dutch, battling the sea.

New York, ravaged by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, has taken note.

“I really have to stress this,” Henk Ovink, who is spearheading the effort to bring Dutch knowhow across the Atlantic, says: “Water is not a threat; it's an asset. Especially for the Dutch.”

The Netherlands’ lessons could not come any sooner. Two separate groups of American scientists are now warning that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting, and nothing can be done to stop it. One section alone would increase sea levels four feet, NASA says.

And this after last week’s White House report, which said climate change is a clear and present danger – not some abstract problem for the future.

The Netherlands has water engrained in its culture, acquired over centuries. But can the country export its unique approach to New York – and the world – in the short time needed to living with rising sea levels?

“It's not easy,” Ovink told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Tuesday. “It's very hard. It is a change between your ears and eyes. It is a change of culture and therefore a change of the heart, which is always harder than an engineering change, or harder than an investment decision. You really have to change the way we go about water.”

Ovink, a former Dutch water-management official, is now working on the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, serving as Special Advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Adapting for higher oceans is not so much about “fighting” the water, Ovink says; it’s about working with it.

For both rural and urban areas, that means not walling off the water, but giving it room and flexibility when storms hit or floods come.

“Your whole urban system has to deal with it,” he told Amanpour. “So that means that you have to make not only more room for the water in your river system, you also have to make more room for your water in your cities, by parks that can [fill up with water] or water squares and, you know, storing capacity in parking garages. So you really use the urban fabric to deal with water.”

The Dutch started fighting the water long before their land was a country. Around 1200, Ovink told Amanpour, the country set up its first “water boards.”

“The interesting aspect of water,” he said, is “if you build a little barrier, [the water] moves to your neighbor. And so if you don't collaborate with your neighbor, you're either at war or a fight, or you better solve it together.”

The country’s collectivist mentality is itself a product of having to fight the water.

Of course, it has not always been smooth sailing for the Netherlands. In 1953, nearly 2,000 people died in floods. The country was hit hard again in the 1990s.

“After our ‘53 disaster and the storms in the '90s, we developed a strategy of working and living with water – making more room for the river instead of less,” Ovink said.

The country has since built a world-famous system of sea barriers.

Ovink’s solutions, of creating a more flexible system, requires land of course. In the Netherlands, he said, that at time meant encroaching on farmland.

“It never makes sense to say, you know, ‘I'm the expert, I'll explain it again,’” he said. “You really have to sit down with people and work with them within their environment, and show them that there are solutions.”

The Netherlands is a small, relatively homogenous country of around 16 million; is Ovink in over his head trying to work in the “Balkanized” – as he calls it – political environment of the New York metropolitan area?

The area has “at least two big states, with two big governors and a big city and a big federal government,” he said.

“There is a big challenge and also a tension – an individual culture versus the idea of collaboration.”

“Sandy, in that sense, was an opportunity. Sandy put so much pressure on this populated region…The only way forward is to collaborate.”

The storm killed 186 people across the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean, and caused billions of dollars of damage and lost revenue.

How, Amanpour asked, would Ovink navigate the denialist culture that runs through many parts of American politics when it comes to climate change?

“By design and a collaborative process,” he said. “We start on the ground working with communities and the mayor and the governor.”

He is co-chair, with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, of “Rebuild by Design,” a collaborative effort to find solutions for the New York region. Ideas will be displayed at the end of May in Rotterdam.

“It was not a group of designers and engineers and scientists that were isolated in a room and came with a rabbit out of a big hat and said, ‘Oh, we know how to solve this.’”

“When we started to connect it to solutions,” he said, “it brought the insight there that climate change is real. It's a fact: sea level rise is real. It's a fact: these storms are very hard to deal with.”

By dealing with it intelligently, he said, Americans can “build a better region, and with that better region, strengthen our ecology, strengthen our economy and strengthen our culture.”
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