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For centuries, human being have fought against the sea to gain more coastline. With the rising sea level, the eternal tug of war is entering a new era.
In October 1634 a violent storm surge broke out over northern Germany. Thousands of people died, and houses and possessions were destroyed in one night. The event not only shaped the history of the Friesland Islands, but also the rugged North Sea coast.
The remains of the storm, which fill walls, shelves, boxes and drawers, are currently exposed in a discreet wooden house in Pellworm. Pellworm Island emerged from a larger island that sank in the devastating storm, known as the “Second Grote Mandrenke,” or “Great Drowning.”
Collected by Helmut Bahnsen, during decades of hiking through the plains surrounding his native Pellworm at low tide, various tiles, tools, thimbles, pottery and even human skulls are testimony to settlements that once existed where the North Sea moves as if I had nothing to hide.
Although some of the “two million” lives lived and lost by the salty waters of the north date back to the Stone Age, the Roman era and the early years of the High Middle Ages, much more was dragged to the depths of the sea on the night of October 11, 1634. If the coast had been better protected, Bahnsen believes that history could have taken a quieter course.
“At that time, the dikes were two meters high, but they were not stable,” he says. “They were tall enough to cope with the average of the storms of the time, but not for catastrophes.”
Security behind coastal defenses
Today, the dikes that surround the island of Pellworm, and extend along much of the German coast of the North Sea, are up to eight meters high and about five meters wide. The newer ones are built in such a way that they can continue filling if the sea level rises more than expected. In many places, the only thing that keeps the sea away from the lowlands is these gigantic green defenses.
The proximity of the water does not scare Ernst August Thams, responsible for the maintenance of the Pellworm dykes. “We have been on this island for hundreds of years and we know how to deal with the sea,” Thams tells DW. “The levees are in very good condition, so I am not worried.” He is convinced that they are the “only way” to protect the island.
But three years ago, in the city of Husum, a different idea emerged. It was discussed what to do with a certain piece of coastline and it was considered to flood part of it to relieve the pressure of the levees.
Known as controlled withdrawal or relocation, the procedure allows flooding by shortening, lowering or moving existing defenses inland, or expanding floodplains so that water has nowhere to go. Although not widely used, many conservationists support this measure as an alternative to coastal protection.
Hans-Ulrich Rösner, who heads the office of the WWF conservation group in the Friesland Sea, admits that this method is difficult to promote.
“Allowing the water to intentionally approach is usually a terrifying idea for the vast majority of people,” he says. “It can only be done if people understand and are convinced.” In Husum they were not.
Mayor Uwe Schmitz believes it was the right decision not to move forward with the proposed project in Husum, but does not rule out similar projects in the coming years. “In the future, there will be more torrential rains, which means we will have to consider the use of crop areas as floodplains,” Schmitz admits to DW. “But these are ethical issues that go against the culture of the peoples of the north, who for centuries have not only defended themselves from the sea, but have also tried to take away the land ”.
Depending on location
John Riby, a member of the British Civil Engineers Institution, has worked for many years on issues related to flooding and coastal protection. Riby describes controlled relocation as “working with nature for the benefit of people.” He states that the key to success is choosing the right place.
He cites the estuary of the Tees River in northern England, which houses industrial facilities such as a nuclear power plant and petrochemical companies at risk of flooding, as one of those places. When companies were so threatened by floods that they even had to temporarily close, a controlled relocation plan was launched.
“The protective walls shifted back to make room for water without affecting business,” explains Riby.
“Normally, new defenses would have been built on the river. But as it was possible for water to flood the floodplains and, therefore, go to the right place, it was possible to create a defense that not only protected businesses, but which also created a large number of new habitats for seals and for flora and fauna of all kinds, ”explains Riby.
Withdraw when it’s not too late
However, much of the coast is used to build homes around the world, and that makes things even more difficult. Asking people to leave their homes and villages to make room for adaptation is not welcome, according to Riby.
“A place where there are homes, it is not good to implement a controlled relocation plan,” he says. In some cases, however, the decision to retire is voluntary. After the passage of Hurricane Sandy, which hit the Caribbean and In the United States in 2012, three coastal communities in the New York City municipality of Staten Island decided to gradually approach the State and sell their land, and about 90 percent of the residents agreed to the sale.
American photographer and filmmaker Nathan Kensinger documented for many years the development of the port areas of New York. He showed how people moved away and nature claimed the area. His sometimes spooky images of toys, clothes or furniture in abandoned houses talk a lot about the power of the sea on a warming planet. Almost everything that once constituted these communities disappeared long ago.
“The idea behind this relocation program was to establish a buffer zone by the sea,” Kensinger tells DW. “Wetlands were created where houses used to be. And now there are wild flowers and grass between empty houses and streets. ”
Abandoned houses are not far from Manhattan, and are now surrounded by swamps and roads, which are flooded by rain and storms. According to Kensinger, people are not forced to move, but they believe that more and more coastal neighbourhoods in the state of New York will have to accept the idea of a controlled move.
“Otherwise, they will be forced to make a much less planned withdrawal, which will be rather in response to a catastrophe.”
And it is that as the remains of past life show in the small museum of the German island of Pellworm: the sea is the only thing that will never stop moving.