Down to the waning days of 2014, foul weather flooded wide swaths of Southeast Asia and apparently caused another airplane crash. Climate change is extending the typhoon calendar, inflicting more intense weather disturbances and rising sea levels are raising the stakes for islands like the Philippines.
Since prehistoric times, land and sea have battled each other for supremacy. Climatic forces have sometimes favored the sea and sometimes the land. At one point, Magellan could have walked from Madrid to Manila—time, weather and predators permitting—until the seas washed away continental land bridges.
The struggle will continue, with or without human intervention. But, until they grow gills and webbed limbs, people will have a stake in this contest. Mother Earth has resources still beyond human reckoning, and the outcome for individual communities is uncertain. Like drugs that cure some diseases but produce dangerous side effects, engineering interventions to control the seas can have countervailing consequences.
Situated at the crossroads of wind and fire, the Philippines is vulnerable to the vagaries of this battle between the elements. It stands in the typhoon beltway. It is also ringed by volcanoes and unstable geological faults that energize earthquakes and tsunamis.
Sadly, we were not blessed with a more favorable geographic location. We have no option for relocating the country and, unlike more endangered smaller islands with smaller populations, no option for relocating our people.
The Dutch and the Belgians in the Low Countries have been waging the war with the sea for centuries to protect and expand areas suitable for human settlement. With ingenuity and perseverance, they have used technology to reclaim and defend land from the waters.
In 1953, the Netherlands suffered devastating storm and sea surges that breached its dikes, flooded 200,000 hectares of land and claimed over 1,800 casualties. Vowing “Never Again,” the Dutch embarked on the development of a coastal defense system to protect the area around the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta in the southwestern part of the country from both sea and river flooding.
Dubbed the Delta Works, the system includes a network of dams, canals, dikes and storm-surge barriers that the American Society of Civil Engineers judged among the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The final piece of the network, the Maeslant storm barrier, was installed in 1997, although work on the system continued until the completion of reinforced retaining walls in 2010, more than 50 years after the launch of the project.
Apart from the complexity of the system, delays resulted from the need to modify original designs as new environmental data raised climate risk levels. Other changes followed from the government’s commitment to address community concerns.
In some areas, the public opposed the broadening of the dikes to raise their levels because it would involve the destruction of historic buildings. Responding to public pressure, the government shifted from more massive dikes to the technically more complex innovation of the Maeslant flexible barrier.
Protests from environmentalists and fishermen also persuaded Parliament to abandon a dam that would have completely closed the Oosterschelde estuary. This would have destroyed the saltwater ecosystem and killed off the oyster and fishing industries dependent on access to brackish water. Instead, the government constructed a barrier of valves that can be closed when a storm surge threatens.
In 2008, the Water Commission warned that climate change would raise North Sea tide levels 1.3 meters by 2100 and 4 meters by 2200. A new Water Law, coming into force in 2009, requires the continuous upgrading of defenses against flooding as threats escalate. Battle plans include mobilizing a war chest of 100 billion euros in new spending through the year 2100 to “nourish” coastal dunes and strengthen sea and river dikes.
Reclamation is a life-and-death issue for the Netherlands. Failure of its coastal defense system would submerge over 60 percent of the country, including most of Amsterdam. Facing this threat, Dutch leaders strive to insulate the management of coastal defenses from partisan politics. They also ensure that reclamation projects address development objectives. Recently, the Netherlands reclaimed 2,000 hectares for the expansion of the Rotterdam port and for commercial and residential quarters, as well as for wildlife sanctuaries and public parks.
Singapore has tapped Dutch expertise to help it defend itself against rising sea levels. It has increased the minimum level for the reclaimed land on which to build Changi Airport’s Terminal 5 from 1.25 meters to 2.25 meters above the highest recorded tide level—added protection for the 50 million passengers the terminal can process every year.
The Philippines is no less vulnerable to climate change. Other countries offer two lessons that bear reflection: first, the need for reclamation; but, second, that reclamation’s primary objective must be coastal defense to promote environmental sustainability and other national development priorities.
Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management and board member of the Philippine Reclamation Authority.
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