The Flemish Government recently completed an investigation into possible measures that could help protect the Belgian coast from floods and rising sea levels in the coming century.
The so-called "Coastal Master Plan" is intended to protect the coast against extreme storms, floods and the consequences of climate change. Measures include the construction of a storm surge barrier in Nieuwpoort.
"It is a kind of gate at the entrance of the port to protect against flooding at extremely high tides," Steve Timmermans of the Agency for Maritime Services and Coast told VRT. "We are already taking into account the increase until 2050."
The issue of rising sea levels is a pressing one, and not one for the future, Timmermans warned. “To be clear, this sea level rise is not something for tomorrow, but is already in full swing,” he said. “We have been measuring about one centimetre of increase every two years since 2000."
This is the reason why the beach along the entire Belgian coastline is already being raised and widened as much as possible, via sand spraying, while existing dikes are being strengthened.
The Coastal Vision project, set up by the Flemish Government in 2017, is also researching measures that are needed to gradually protect the coast and hinterland against a potential sea level rise of up to three meters in the long term. Their experts are working on different hypotheses in regard to the threat.
"We take into account very different scenarios," the project’s leader Edward Van Keer told VRT. "Both the scenario in which we achieve the objectives of the climate summit in Paris – to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and one where we do nothing and just keep going as we are. The difference in sea level rise in these scenarios varies between 30 and 140 centimetres."
Two options for protecting beach zones are currently being discussed. The first is keeping the waterline where it is, but raising the beach, the dike and the dunes – a measure that is already being carried out along many sections of the coastline. The other option is moving the low water line a few metres in the direction of the sea.
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According to Flemish Minister of Public Works Lydia Peeters, this second option is preferable for the time being. "We think it is more interesting to move up the coastline and go seaward as much as possible," she told VRT, emphasising that no final decision has yet been made by the Flemish Government. "We first need to do additional research: a strategic environmental impact report and a social cost and benefit analysis."
The cost of these measures is also something that needs to be discussed. “We have to wait for that social cost and benefit analysis," she added. "With the Coastal Safety Master Plan, we have already allocated an amount of €240 million." Shifting the low water line or raising dikes is one thing, but protecting coastal ports is becoming more challenging, both logistically and financially.
This is certainly a challenge for the port of Zeebrugge, because a storm surge barrier such as in Nieuwpoort is not possible. "In Zeebrugge, you can only keep the port open as it is now and gradually increase everything," Van Keer said. "It is not possible to build a storm surge barrier or work with a lock for nautical reasons."
With this in mind, other options are being considered for the protection of coastal ports