Americans could learn from Holland’s muskrat killers

Muskrats endanger Dutch levees by burrowing into them to build thier nests. Photograph: Getty
Muskrats endanger Dutch levees by burrowing into them to build thier nests. Photograph: Getty
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THEY are sent out each morning to combat a grave menace to the world’s most advanced network of storm defences. Their mission is to kill muskrats.

Using metal cages and spring traps baited with carrots, Holland’s rodent hunters provide a low-tech but vital service in an elaborate and highly-effective Dutch defensive system that includes flood-control techniques first developed in the Middle Ages and futuristic steel structures that, operated by computers, move to block storm surges when water levels rise too high.

The 11-man team operates in Flevoland, a Dutch province that is more than 12 feet below sea level and their job involves killing the muskrats that weaken the flood levees by burrowing deep into them to create nesting chambers.

If a dyke breaks in Flevoland, an area nearly three times the size of Manhattan and made up entirely of land reclaimed from the sea, it would take just 48 hours for the entire province to be submerged in water. “We either kill the rats or the water kills us,” said Peter Glas, president of the Dutch Association of Regional Water ­Authorities.

The muskrat teams are the low-tech end of the Netherlands’ peerless expertise and centuries of experience in battling water, which is now being widely hailed in the United States as offering lessons for how New York and other cities might better protect people and property from flooding.

With the lessons of Superstorm Sandy fresh in American minds, Dutch engineering companies are already pitching projects to fortify Manhattan against storms, stressing that the Netherlands has experience with a coastline and cluster of river estuaries that resemble New York’s, and pose similar flooding risks.

But Dutch officials and hydrology experts who have examined the contrasting systems of the two countries say that replicating Dutch successes in the US would require a radical reshaping of the American approach.

The Dutch “way of thinking is completely different from the US”, where disaster relief generally takes precedence over disaster avoidance, said Wim Kuijken, the Dutch government’s senior official for overall water control policy. “The US is excellent at disaster management,” but “working to avoid disaster is completely different from working after a disaster”.

The Netherlands does not have hurricanes but does have ferocious storms from the north-west, funnelled toward the coast across the North Sea. Centuries of living so close to the edge have cultivated a keen awareness of the consequences of flooding and the imperative to prevent them in a country where two-thirds of the population, including residents of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, live on flood-prone land, much of it below sea level.

“We know that if things go wrong, we pay for decades,” said Kuijken, who holds the post of delta commissioner. As a result, he said, the Netherlands has been able to mobilise enormous resources to anticipate and minimise the risk of flooding.

For most of their history, the Dutch held back water in land that began as a large peat swamp by creating an elaborate mosaic of dykes, which, strung together today, would stretch for nearly 50,000 miles. After serious floods in 1916 and 1953, it was decided that constantly building, raising and reinforcing dykes was no longer feasible, particularly in densely populated ­areas.

This led to huge dam projects to seal off flood-prone river estuaries and inlets from the sea. On waterways that could be not be sealed because of heavy shipping traffic, like the estuary leading to Rotterdam’s port, movable barriers were erected instead.

In response to the 1953 floods, which killed more than 1,800 people, the state laid down strict rules, ordering that flood defences be made strong enough to resist a storm so severe that, according to computer projections, it would occur only once every 10,000 years.

The Dutch government currently spends around $1.3 billion (£818m) a year on water control, and local water boards spend hundreds of millions more to maintain dykes and canals.

While Flevoland’s muskrat hunters were out looking for rodents last week, the heir to the Dutch throne, Prince Willem-Alexander, joined other officials in the provincial capital, Lelystad, to open the Water Management Centre, a new central control unit.

But not everyone in the Netherlands shares the nation’s passion for eliminating risk. Residents in Uitdam, a small town in the north, recently protested about plans to raise the height of dykes, complaining that this would destroy their view of an adjacent lake. In Flevoland, regular complaints are received from animal rights activists that killing muskrats is cruel and unnecessary.

Muskrat hunter Jacko Westerndorp has little time for such concerns: “We have to do this work. If the water comes, we all drown.”