In the summer of 2018, the climate crisis made itself felt in the Netherlands. Not only by an excess of water, but also by freshwater shortages. To many, this came as a surprise. Our entire delta has been designed to discharge water as quickly and efficiently as possible with an eye to water safety.

The dry hot summer of 2018

source: NOS

In 2018, it took a great deal of effort to keep the Dutch water machine up and running: to this day, some areas have not recovered from the drought, and there is likely to be permanent damage, both to urban and to wildlife and agricultural areas.
More hot and dry summers are likely to follow. Unfortunately, the Dutch delta has not been designed to retain water in times of drought. This presents a new challenge, which the IABR–Atelier Drought in the Delta wants to map out.

Precipitation Surplus
As in many other places in the world, there is plenty of water in the Netherlands, but not always at the right time. The country has an annual precipitation surplus, but the water that falls in wet periods is often no longer available in times of drought. Sometimes large quantities of fresh water are transported directly to the sea; at other times there is a water shortage in some places. This mismatch between water demand and surplus precipitation as a result of the climate crisis is expected to become more frequent and to increase, not only because of changing weather conditions, but also because glaciers are melting and seawater levels are rising. The circumstances call for alternative ways of thinking and acting: from a naturally wet delta that has to discharge its water as quickly as possible for its inhabitants to survive, to one that retains freshwater and makes it accessible when necessary.

precipitation surplus 2018

source: KNMI

Shortage of Space
Like deltas elsewhere in the world, the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta is a densely urbanized and economically and ecologically crucial area. That means that space aboveground is scarce, but underground there’s still room, where there have always been major reserves of freshwater, all over the world. This seems to be the most logical place to temporarily store freshwater.
But the subsurface is a vulnerable system that faces its own challenges. In many places in the world, underground freshwater lakes, the aquifers, are under threat, and being drained for irrigation or industrial purposes. This does not happen often in the Netherlands, but the freshwater supply in our delta is also under pressure, mainly as a result of salinization.
In addition, the subsurface is already being intensively used. There are more claims to the space than just that of water storage, for example those of the energy transition and of CO2 storage. And because of the climate crisis, all of these claims are equally urgent. In the future, claimants will either get in each other's way or will have to share the available space.
All of this is reason for the IABR to investigate the opportunities and frameworks for the large-scale aboveground and underground storage of freshwater. This must be done with an eye for other domains – to see where the various transitions meet and influence each other, but above all to find out where they can help each other. How can the large-scale storage of freshwater act as a lever for the creation of alternative approaches and social added value? How can the underground storage of freshwater contribute to the creation of a resilient delta that can cope with the major transitions that lie ahead?

Journey to the Center of the Earth
The IABR–Atelier Drought in the Delta, which is led by Marco Vermeulen (Studio Marco Vermeulen), is nothing short of a ‘journey to the center of the earth’. Although we are not likely to get that far, we will look at all the knowledge that is already available to map out the surface and the subsurface purposefully and as best we can – a precondition for designing there. This will clarify the opportunities and possibilities for the large-scale aboveground and underground storage of freshwater and explain how and where this affects other transitions and their space claims to begin with and, next, show how transitions underground are fundamentally linked to major transitions aboveground.

ten potential pilot projects

© IABR, Studio Marco Vermeulen

The final outcome of this Atelier will consist of a concrete strategy for 2050 and identify possible pilot projects. These have to be specifically designed on location and explicitly represented at eye level to ensure that their (positive!) impact on the living environment is clearly visible. The pilot projects must be designed to collect proof that will allow the further development and accentuation of the strategy. The results will provide a stimulating picture of the future, but it is at least as important that local or regional governments will be able to use them to work on their own challenges.

The IABR–Atelier Drought in the Delta is a study by the IABR that is being conducted by Studio Marco Vermeulen under the direction of Marco Vermeulen.