Along a rugged, wide North Sea beach here on a recent day, children formed teams of eight to 10, taking their places beside mounds of sand carefully cordoned by candy-cane striped tape. They had one hour for their sand castle competition. Some built fishlike structures, complete with scales. Others spent their time on elaborate ditch and dike labyrinths. Each castle was adorned on top with a white flag.
Then they watched the sea invade and devour their work, seeing whose castle could withstand the tide longest. The last standing flag won.
Theirs was no ordinary day at the beach, but a newly minted, state-sanctioned competition for schoolchildren to raise awareness of the dangers of rising sea levels in a country of precarious geography that has provided lessons for the world about water management, but that fears that its next generation will grow complacent.
Fifty-five percent of the Netherlands is either below sea level or heavily flood-prone. Yet thanks to its renowned expertise and large water management budget (about 1.25 percent of gross domestic product), the Netherlands has averted catastrophe since a flooding disaster in 1953.
Experts here say that they now worry that the famed Dutch water management system actually works too well and that citizens will begin to take for granted the nation’s success in staying dry. As global climate change threatens to raise sea levels by as much as four feet by the end of the century, the authorities here are working to make real to children the forecasts that may seem far-off, but that will shape their lives in adulthood and old age.
“Everything works so smoothly that people don’t realize anymore that they are taking a risk in developing urban areas in low-lying areas,”said Raimond Hafkenscheid, the lead organizer of the competition and a water expert with the Foreign Ministry.
Before the competition, the children, ages 6 to 11, were coached by experts in dike building and water management. Volunteers stood by, many of them freshly graduated civil engineers, giving last-minute advice on how best to battle the rising water.
A recently released report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on water management in the Netherlands pointed to an “awareness gap” among Dutch citizens. The finding did much to get the sand castle contest off the ground.