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Walking on water in the Netherlands

Walking on water in the Netherlands

THE NETHERLANDS — Turbulent seas threaten. Villages are flooded. Crops destroyed. Lives lost. That’s a modern problem as climate change raises temperatures and sea levels.
But in The Netherlands, that’s old news. A “low country,” with much of its land below sea level, Holland has always been exposed to turbulent North Sea storm surges. My grandfather was born in Rotterdam on the North Sea. I never knew him but because of him, I’ve always felt connected to The Netherlands.
I’m in this seaside town known as Noordwijk, 30 minutes from Amsterdam. I watch my wife have a yoga lesson on the beach on a sunny day. We walk on a wide beach, past hundreds of brightly coloured beach umbrellas. On the boardwalk, we look up at the towering statue of Queen Wilhelmina who brought her royal family here to enjoy the health benefits of salt water and sea breezes. We take a tour of flower bulb farms with dahlias brightly in bloom with all the colours of the rainbow.


Above: Architecture is a big draw in Almere Centrum. Renowned architects were invited to create buildings, including the nature lookout, below, that are innovative, experimental and sustainable.

Later, we have amazing massages at an exquisite wellness centre. As we’re having a feast at an elegant restaurant, we see a parade outside. People cheerfully wave from flower-covered floats, celebrating the importance of flower-growing to the local economy.
Noordwijk is a lovely vacation destination. But I keep wondering, how does it survive the violence of North Sea storms? To answer that question, Joost Bouwmeester, a naturalist guide, leads us on a tour of the beach. Before we take more than a dozen steps, he points to the sand dunes that stretch like a necklace along the beach.
“Holland is a sand castle,” he says with a wry smile. “One good storm and the whole area would blow away.” To shield the land, the Dutch created a barrier of tall dunes from 8.50m to 20m tall that are secured by plants with deep roots. Marram Grass, Lyme Grass and Beetroot Grass help protect Noordwijk’s agricultural bounty and its recreational playground of swimming, surfing, kite surfing, sailing and biking.
Joost tells me, “Climate change is real. No one has to tell the Dutch. We know the story. The Dutch tell the world, we know what is coming, but people drink their Prosecco and say, ‘Well, we’ll wait.’ The Dutch know you can’t wait, that doesn’t prepare you.”
On that same trip, I travel east from Amsterdam to Flevoland, The Netherlands’ newest province, to understand how the Dutch use dikes to protect against storms and to create land (called polders) reclaimed from the sea.

DSC06999  DSC07000

Above: The Dutch rely on their bikes to get them to the beach and Noordwijk beaches draws surfers.

With Paul Meekel, I tour a complex of towns collectively called Almere, a gateway to vast recreational and agricultural areas.
In Almere Centrum, the largest town, where hundreds of thousands of people live, Meekel points out innovative design features of a dozen modern, tall buildings that face the lake. From Almere Centrum we travel on a two-lane highway, past neatly constructed neighbourhoods, thickly wooded areas and agricultural fields that stretch to the horizon. At the 56-sq-km Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, we look at a lake studded with small islands. A bird-watchers’ paradise, the reserve is home to migratory birds who flock to the area with its fertile clay soil and abundance of food.
Almere looks wonderfully appealing. But the startling fact is that 60 years ago, everything we see didn’t exist because this area was below sea level, at the bottom of an inland lake called the Ijsselmeer. The land was created by massive dikes that hold back the destructive force of the North Sea.


Above: After a day at the beach, there's always treats from the sea to enjoy.

Everything was engineered. What now looks wild, was planted. Even the lake and islands in the nature reserve. The birds didn’t come this way. The deer didn’t live in the woods. None of that happened until the water was pushed out, dry land was created, hundreds of thousands of trees were planted and seeds scattered from planes. Plants were chosen that attracted birds who, in turn, ate the fruit and then seeded more plants as they flew over the newly created wetlands.
That was hard to wrap my head around so Paul had me stand in front of a building in Almere Centrum with a black border painted on the wall. Without the dikes, he jokes, pointing to the top of the border, I would need a snorkel because where I was standing would be six meters under water.
Each of the Almere communities is an experiment. Lessons learned in one are applied to the next. The process of using nature and human engineering evolves and hopefully creates lasting solutions.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans reached out to Dutch engineers to help protect the city against the next storm surge. The lesson of Noordwijk and Almere is that addressing the impact of climate change doesn’t have to be about what we can’t have. With foresight, engineering and careful protection of the land, we can create new opportunities for communities, recreation, conservation and wellness.


Useful websites:

For The Netherlands:  www.Holland.com

For Noordwijk:  

For Almere:
https://www.visitalmere.com/en and https://www.visitalmere.com/en/plan/vvv

Getting there: Air Canada and KLM offer daily flights to Amsterdam from Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. Take train from Amsterdam to reach Noordwijk and Almere.


In Noordwijk: Joost Bouwmeester, noordwijknatuur@gmail.com

In Almere, Paul Meekel: www.gids.host, info@gids.host

Where to Stay in Noordwijk:

Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin (“House on the Dune”), Koningin Astrid Boulevard 5, Noordwijk aan Zee, The Netherlands, www.huisterduin.com

Beachclub O, Koningin Wilhelmina Boulevard 106, Strandafrit 16-17 https://www.beachclubo.nl

Yoga on the Beach, www.yogabeach.nl (website in Dutch only), Facebook Yogabeach (in English and Dutch).







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