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Should we build a European mega-dam?

A mega-dam around Europe is a possible solution as protection against rising sea levels. Whether that is really a good idea, was debated on by young professionals during the debate on the future of European coastal protection. 'A big dam may seem safe, but actually isn't,' argued debate winner Haye Geukes, PhD student at the Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML).

The European mega-dam would span from Portugal to Scandinavia, going around the UK. As sea levels rise due to climate change, that dam should hold back the water. A controversial idea, with both advocates and opponents. Young professionals from across Europe working in coastal protection spoke out during the debate.

'I knew there would be many participants with vast technical knowledge,' says Geukes, who is researching coastal protection himself at the CML for the C-SCAPE project. 'That's why I put the focus on the dam's influences in the broader sense. Does it really lead to more safety? Does it make society feel safer? And what are the effects on other important issues, such as nature, economy, culture and politics?'

The debate is an initiative from the Kring of Coastal Engineers. This European group was formed to work together on coastal protection after the flood of 1953. During that disaster, a combination of a storm and spring tides flooded large parts of the Netherlands. It is the biggest Dutch natural disaster of the 20th century.

A potential military target

Looking at the big picture, there are more cons than pros to a big dam, Geukes said. 'It may seem safe, but in fact it is not. It makes us enormously dependent on a large and complicated structure.' That dependence makes us vulnerable. 'The dam has to be well maintained to work properly. We have to deal with unexpected circumstances such as sea levels rising faster than expected. And it could even be a military target.'

Geukes also warns about the potential side effects of this dam. 'For coastal life, it is important that nutrients can flow from the deep sea to the coast. A dam would block that flow. This would then damage the landscape, recreation, tourism and fisheries.  These all rely heavily on the functioning of the marine ecosystem. This could also have far-reaching political consequences.'

A broader look at coastal protection

Geukes' approach worked. He won the first prize as opponent of the dam. 'There was a prize for both the best pro and opponent participant. I was happy and surprised when I heard I had won. My opponents were mainly focused on the technical side. My win shows that the judges also think it is important to look at the future of our coastal protection in a broader, more integrated way.' As a prize, he gets to go to Poland for a follow-up debate with about 100 European experts as spectators.

It is important to talk about coastal protection, says Geukes. 'Because sea levels are potentially going to rise a lot in the coming decades, possibly up to two meters by 2100. By making plans now, we can prepare for it as effectively as possible.' So how should we best approach coastal protection? 'We should mainly focus on what will really lead to more safety. In doing so, we must also take sufficient account of the culture, nature, and economy in the coastal area. And of course, include the choices of local citizens in coastal plans. That way, we can provide the best coastal protection for everyone.'

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