Tides of change: Amid rising sea levels, the Dutch float new initiatives with farms and more homes on water
With Singapore looking at ways of adapting to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, CNA went to the Netherlands to see how people are developing new strategies to live and work on water.
AMSTERDAM/ROTTERDAM, Netherlands: In the middle of Rotterdam’s Merwehaven port where ships used to dock, there now stands a floating dairy farm.
A three-storey facility spanning 1,800 square metres, the farm is home to 35 cows and 4 newly born calves since opening in May.
With a location that’s very different from the normal rolling green hills, its owners hope to showcase food production that takes place closer to where consumers live and that is done in a “climate-adaptive way”.
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“When cities are flooded, one of the challenges we saw is how to feed major cities with fresh food and reduce transportation,” said founder Peter van Wingerden.
“We thought we can help with farms that are built on the water and produce food inside the cities.”
To do so, the farm, which cost about 4 million euros (about S$6.1 million), is big on technology and the concept of the “circular economy”.
The barn on the third level has an automated milking machine and a manure robot. Both the milk and manure are automatically transported to separate facilities on the second floor after collection.
A conveyor belt that runs through the two levels also automates the feeding process, with the feed prepared via a machine on the second level before being sent to food troughs in the barn above.
As a result, the farm is run by just two people.
It doesn’t stop there. Cow manure is treated before being sent back to the city to be used as fertilisers, while the cows feed on grains used by a local beer brewery.
The basement, which is underwater, stores rain-water treatment machines and solar panels floating beside the farm produce about half of the energy needed.
“It’s important to produce food in a high-tech way with as few man hours as possible,” said Mr van Wingerden.
“We want to show a different model can be done.”
LIVING ON WATER
The farm in Rotterdam is just one of the floating structures to have emerged in the Netherlands. The country has a long history of using structures on water for living and working, but technological advancements seem to have made this more feasible and practical.
The concept of building on water is increasingly seen by some as a solution to land disappearing as a result of rising sea levels brought about by climate change.
In the north of Amsterdam, a new floating residential development is near completion.
Called Schoonschip, which means “Clean Ship”, there are currently 26 floating houses ranging from 90 to 210 square metres each. Four more units are set to be completed latest by the start of next year.
Each house has three levels, including a basement that is completely under water.
To be a homeowner here, one will have to fork out between 300,000 euros to 800,000 euros. All the homes have been sold and when completed, 46 households will be living in the community, said its planner Sascha Glasl.
Asked how the houses are designed to float, Mr Glasl, co-founder of architect firm Space and Mattar, said: “The easiest way is to have a concrete base that is hollow, allowing it to float. On top, we put wooden structures.”
The houses are also fixed to two poles anchored to the river bed.
“So they can go up and down (the poles) if there are waves and if water levels rise, the houses will still be floating,” he continued. “It’s not rocket science but you’ll need to calculate it well.”
To live on water is a solution against climate change and rising sea levels, according to Mr Glasl, but Schoonschip also has a huge emphasis on building a sustainable community.
Which is why the housing project has been nearly 10 years in the making, with a lot of time spent on discussing ideas for sustainable living with those who bought the units.
For instance, each house is fitted with a green roof and water pumps that extract heat from the river waters.
The houses also come with solar panels that produce energy needed by residents. Excess energy is stored in a battery and one can choose to “sell” it to the rest of the community through a “smart grid”.
“We have been given an ‘experimental status’ from the government because here in the Netherlands, you are not allowed to generate your own electricity and sell it,” said Mr Glasl.
Residents will also be doing electric car and bike-sharing via an app.
It is this idea of living sustainably within a like-minded community that attracted Corine Dikkers. So much so that the 37-year-old and her boyfriend will be sharing a floating house with another family.
“When we heard about this project which has a focus on sustainability, we were so enthusiastic. We are also very excited because it’s our first house on the water.”
Ms Dikkers said she is not expecting any challenges when it comes to living in a floating house, except in the area of furniture planning.
“If you have too many things on one side, you have to compensate on the other side so we have tiles and dead loads that you can move around to do some fine-tuning in stability,” she told CNA.
“But I’m not worried because this house is designed to be on the water.”
The marrying of the country’s expertise in water and a huge emphasis on sustainability is what these projects hope to offer as a future solution for the Netherlands in face of climate change.
Surrounded on one end by the North Sea and with three of Europe’s major rivers – the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt – running through the country, about two-thirds of the Netherlands is vulnerable to flooding.
For centuries, the Dutch have built dykes, canals, windmills and pumps to keep the water out. In doing so, they created polders – a uniquely Dutch term referring to reclaimed land that lies below sea level – out of previously unusable waterlogged areas.
But polders require constant pumping and regular maintenance of its dykes to be kept dry. It has also raised problems, such as subsidence particularly in the western part of the country.
“Where we are is 4 metres below sea level but we are in Noah’s Ark,” said Mr van Wingerden. “If the dykes break, we are safe.”
“We are also creating polders with our floating models. This is the new polder that is climate-adaptive and little maintenance needed,” he added.
Producing 800 liters of milk a day, the farm recently started selling its own brand of milk and yogurt. There are also plans to add a chicken farm next to the dairy farm and have a floating vegetable farm in the south.
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. When Mr van Wingerden first applied for a permit in 2013, some people told him he was “crazy”.
Local port authorities had questions about noise and smell, while a political party sounded concerns about animal welfare.
“This had never been done before so we had many questions from all over,” he told CNA.
“One of them was from a political party (here) who asked ‘Could cows become sea sick?’ The answer to that is yes, like human beings they can become sea sick but only if it is really shaky. Our environment is completely stable.”
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It would take about three years before Mr van Wingerden received the permit for the dairy farm. The “waiting process” could soon begin for his expansion plans, he quipped.
Nevertheless, the engineer-turned-farm-owner believes that floating structures can be a long-term solution to climate change.
“Sea levels are rising, rainfall is increasing and here we are, trapped in the delta. If we want to continue building and expanding, the best way is to do it on the water.
“We are showing that it can be done and with a vital function of producing food,” said the 58-year-old.
Mr Glasl echoed that: “With climate change, we will face problems with rising sea levels but it’s not just that. What will you do with waste and how do you continue to produce food – these are issues too.”
That is why the team behind Schoonschip is already working on plans for a “floating city”, which will combine residential and office space with food and energy production.
“We want to try to make an independent ecosystem that is future-proof,” he said. “Because if you can make your own food and energy, even if the water level rises, nothing will happen.”