From its source 2,349 meters above the sea in Switzerland, the Rhine drains six countries in an area the size of Nebraska (200,000 km2). This massive flow of water and sediment saturates an area of Western Europe known as the Low Countries (in Dutch: De Nederlanden, in French: Les Pays-Bas) where much of the land is at or below sea level.
This is the Rhine Delta, a splintered series of lakes, canals, sluices, dykes, and rivers heavily managed to prevent the sea from flooding in, or the rivers from flooding out.
“The Rhine built our country,” said a Dutch climate scientist I met on the banks of the Oude Rijn.
Dutch riverside communities have the highest flood risk from increasing peak discharges with potential for human casualties and significant economic loss; while in the tidal river areas, rising sea level is pushing up peak water levels during storm surges. The Dutch government has set up the Delta Programme to prepare for the impact of climate change. Essentially, they restoring natural functions under a program titled “Rivers Ambition”.
The Delta Programme has created a “preferential strategy” for the Rhine involving dyke improvements through raising and strengthening and river widening by lowering floodplains, constructing flood channels, and developing retention areas – just as I’d learned about at ICPR in Koblenz, Germany.
Without coordination and cooperation from upstream countries, the Netherlands has minimal influence over the force of the Rhine spilling over its border toward the sea, or the quality of the water which is depended upon for drinking and wildlife habitat. Therefore the Dutch government had significant incentives to develop the current international agreements to improve/restore the Rhine. Yet initial concern over water quality dates back before climate change was named, to the late 19th century and the decline of the salmon population due overfishing, dams and pollution.