A government commission recently presented its recommendations for how the Netherlands must strengthen its water defenses to combat global warming’s potentially devastating effects. The plan by the Delta Commission is expected to be the central reference point for policymakers for decades to come — especially for dealing with anticipated rising seas and the threat of flooding.Two-thirds of the country’s 16 million people already live below sea level. The Netherlands’ political history and even its name, which means the “lowlands,” have been shaped by its location at the delta created by the Rhine and other major European rivers.

The Netherlands has already budgeted euro1 billion (US$1.4 billion) annually for urgent water defense projects over the next 20 years, in addition to the euro500 million (US$720 million) spent annually to maintain existing sea and river dikes.

The worst flood in living memory was a 1953 disaster in which a storm surge drove water along the Dutch coast more than 13 feet (4 meters) above normal levels, breaching defenses and killing more than 1,800 people. The first Delta Commission created after that deluge undertook a massive 40-year building project that made the country’s water defenses among the strongest in the world.

The new commission was created last September, after the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina spurred a new round of reflection and preparations. Those included drawing up worst-case scenario plans for evacuations — a politically unthinkable task just a few years ago.

Dutch policymakers are now preparing for a rise in sea level of around 80 centimeters (30 inches) in the coming century regardless of the ongoing scientific debate on global warming. Strategies introduced in the last decade include pumping sand into strategic offshore locations where North Sea currents sweep them into place, bulking up dunes; re-establishing minor waterways and canals to accommodate sudden water influxes; and designating intentional flooding zones for emergencies. Some long-term ideas previously proposed include altering the course of the Rhine or creating “breaker islands” off the country’s North Sea coast to defend against storm surges.