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Rotterdam. A City Below the Sea. What Will the Future Bring?

Besides the intense urban-ness of Rotterdam, the thing that struck me about the Dutch city as I flew over in April was its connection to water.

And I keep looking at this picture:

Rotterdam from above. March 21, 2012

Rotterdam is the second largest port in the world. For decades, and until very recently, it topped the list as the largest. Divided by the Nieuwe Mass, a dis-tributary of the great Rhine system, the entire city sits below sea-level. The Noord and Lek meet here too. So does the Oude Mass. Ships ply the waters to the North Sea. The dikes and dams and excavated square harbors and give an impression of a glass, steel, cement and industrialized version of Venice.

You might think that this connection to water has something to do with a connection to nature – and you’d be entirely wrong.

Rotterdam is, if anything, one of the most impressive of all human-dominated environments. When you really think about it, the location of this giant port, as with New Orleans, is just about the most insane of places to build a settlement much less a major city and the battle against nature just to ensure its footing is profound – and to be quite honest hard to understand.

Of course, I wasn’t there.

Two-thousand years ago the area was a soggy, alkaline delta fen of coffee-colored water and an endless horizon of sedges dotted with an occasional willow or alder.

Of course there were people.  There were always people.

Subsistence economies tend toward less impact on the landscape and for millennia it went on that way.

And then things changed.

A thousand years ago they called the area “Rotta” meaning muddy water. The Nieuwe Mass was a sloppy and stinking part of the Merwede.  It should go without saying but it seems so often forgotten: flooding is a natural process and when the waters roared in 1150 chasing everyone to higher ground, the residents returned and began constructing dikes along the northern banks. A few floods later and still more dams and dikes went up.

All of the water control structures caused the Maas to shift course to the north.

Whole sections of Rotterdam were born and then died based on the shifts of the rivers. Islands appeared, lasted for decades and were then disappeared.

A few more floods and the Biesbosch was born and then the Hollands Diep.  The main branch of the Mass eventually silted up so a channel to the sea was dug instead.

Feeling pretty confident, the local business community wanted to ensure access to markets throughout northeast Europe. Around 1350, the Rotterdamse Schie was finished.  The impressive shipping canal placed Rotterdam squarely in the middle of nearly all trade between German and England.

By 1602 Rotterdam had grown o become the home base of the world’s first mega-corporation, the cruel Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, the United Dutch East India Company. If ever there was an example of what terrible things can happen when a corporation is over-empowered and runs rogue, this is it.

A history worth learning.

But I digress.

Then the decision was made to separate the Rhine and the Maas entirely and now all the waters flow through the entirely artificial Nieuwe Waterweg.

Topographic Map of Rotterdam. 2011

When the tiny Dutch army put up more of a fight than the Nazi’s had imagined possible, Rotterdam was leveled with the loss of a thousand lives in a single afternoon. For five years it was a wasteland.

These days, just down the river from the center of the city, the North Sea rose by more than 20cm –  in just the last 100 years. Holland’s Delta Commission estimates the sea will rise by 1.3 meters over the next 50 years and by as much as 4 meters by 2200.

So with climate change, Rotterdam will truly be a city below the sea.


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