When a city sinks: Case of Amsterdam

Prof Thijs Weststeijn (History and Art History) of Utrecht University in this AEON article points how Amsterdam is being threatened by rising sea and river waters.

Amsterdam’s ancient foundations suffer from what is known as ‘pole pest’, brought on by sinking groundwater caused by increasing droughts. In 2020, like many of the city’s residents, I had to leave my house for months as the wooden foundations and ground floor of my building were completely refurbished in cement; and it is only a matter of time before Amsterdam’s medieval churches and Royal Palace suffer the same fate. At present, even casual visitors to the city cannot miss the bridges and quays shored up by temporary scaffolding as the wooden foundations await replacement.

At the same time, the city, built in a river delta on land below sea level, is threatened by rising sea and river waters, and the giant sluice in IJmuiden is kept increasingly busy pumping excess waters from Amsterdam’s rivers into the North Sea. According to this year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 global sea levels are expected to rise between 0.5 to 1 metre and, ‘due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes’, a larger rise of 2 metres by 2100 and 5 metres by 2150 ‘cannot be ruled out’. In 2019, Deltares, a consortium of experts in sea level adaptation, examined the impact of different scenarios for the Dutch coast, including a managed retreat: that is, a migration of the population eastward to higher areas. By 2021, their warnings already seem outdated, as the southeast corner of the country experienced dramatic flooding when excessive rainfall caused rivers to overflow their banks. There was notable damage to the built heritage, including the 13th-century Church of St Nicholas and Barbara in Valkenburg.

It seems that the Dutch will have to come to terms with the fact that they will not only lose their immaterial heritage such as ice-skating, but also much of their material heritage. In fact, the Dutch are canaries in a global coalmine: historic heritage on all continents is under threat from the climate crisis. To the extent that this is a highly emotive issue, consider how the world grieved when the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris burned in 2019. So many values and sentiments of identity and belonging are invested in historic heritage. How will we cope with the much more substantial loss that awaits us?

At the end he has suggestions on how city heritage could be restored..

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