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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 18:05 GMT
Dutch pioneer floating eco-homes
By Alix Kroeger
BBC News, Maasbommel, the Netherlands

Maasbommel
The Dutch have found a new way to cope with excess water

Small and densely populated, the Netherlands is one of the countries most at risk from climate change and rising sea levels.

But in one village in the south of the country, they are trying out a new way of living with an increased risk of floods.

A small ferry shuttles back and forth from one bank of the River Maas to the other. This is the only way of reaching Maasbommel, in Gelderland province, from the south.

The landscape is saturated with water, criss-crossed by rivers and the network of dykes which are supposed to protect the area from flooding.

Sustainable buildings which have no adverse impact on the environment
Chris Zevenbergen of Dura Vermeer

But the dykes are not always enough. In 1993 and again in 1995, floods forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes.

Rising sea levels

Now, with climate change, floods are likely to be more frequent and more severe.

Dutch scientists predict a rise in sea levels of up to 110cm (43 inches) by the year 2100.

At the same time, there is growing pressure on land. The Dutch government estimates 500,000 new homes will be needed in the next two decades.

Most of the land suitable for conventional building has already been snapped up. So Dutch housebuilders are experimenting with new solutions.

Floating alternative

A row of amphibious houses lines the waterfront at Maasbommel, panelled in blue, yellow and green. They have a hollow concrete cube at the base to give them buoyancy.

Floating house
The houses' new occupants say they barely notice the floods
A vertical pile keeps them anchored to the land.

Electricity and water are pumped in through flexible pipes. In all, the houses can withstand a rise in the water table of up to four metres (13ft).

"We are trying to develop new types of more sustainable buildings which have no adverse impacts on the environment," says Chris Zevenbergen of Dura Vermeer, the company which developed the floating houses.

At a starting price of 260,000 euros (180,000 or $310,000), the houses are not a cheap option. But Mr Zevenbergen says demand is high.

"We have to make our first steps," he says. "It's a long process, but the transition to a more flood-resilient country is a prerequisite in the near future."

Growing popularity

The houses have attracted international attention. Officials from New Orleans, which was devastated by flooding in August 2005, have visited Maasbommel to see how the floating houses work.

Maasbommel house
The new homes moored to the shore present a tranquil picture
Cees Westdijk and his wife bought one of the houses because they wanted to live near the water. They hardly notice it when the area floods, he says.

"You can build it very big, you can build it small, but I think for a lot of countries with the same problems as here, it is a good solution," he says.

He does caution that the floating houses are no replacement for conventional flood defences, including the dykes, a crucial failing in New Orleans.

But while the floating houses may be radical enough for some, others think the Netherlands should go much further.

Pressure on land

Frits Schoute runs a sustainable development project called Ecoboot. In collaboration with engineering and architecture students, mainly from Delft Technical University, he is working on pilot projects to build whole cities at sea.

Map of Netherlands
He believes the coming shortages of land, energy and water will increase the pressure to find innovative solutions.

"Our traditional way of just fighting the sea with dykes has to give way to alternatives, like going with the water," Mr Schoute predicts.

The floating city is a long-term project, he admits. But the houses at Maasbommel are a good first step.

"(Change) should come from the bottom up, not just from the top down," he says.

"If you also have the support of the government, realising how necessary it is to find alternatives for mankind, then sometime it will happen."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Chris Zevenbergen believes the floating houses have a bright future.

"We have many deltas in the world which have problems with competing land claims for economic activity," he explains.

"So when you can create a community which coexists with water, then you have a very sustainable solution."


SEE ALSO
Country profile: The Netherlands
22 Feb 07 |  Country profiles
Louisiana studies Dutch dams
13 Jan 06 |  Europe

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