The Belgian coastal plain and the Schelde estuary are threatened by sea-level rise. While of great economic importance with a threatened population of some 0.8 million (of a total population of 10 million), assessments of these risks are limited. This article describes the physical characteristics of the coast and undertakes a qualitative interpretation of its vulnerability. Low-lying polders are the most vulnerable to sea-level rise where a major problem is water drainage during rainy periods; their varying vulnerability to sea-level rise and increase in rain intensity is assessed, including the relationship between drainage levels and saltwater seepage. Freshwater lenses developed within the dunes are also vulnerable to sea-level rise, leading to threats to drinking water supplies from saltwater intrusion. Belgian coastal defence structures and their effectiveness are discussed. Historical sea-level rise during the past century, wave and wind data, and the evolution of erosion and accretion along the coast are interpreted. For Antwerpen, a harbour city on the river Schelde, the effects of sea-level rise are far from clear. Included here are historical data on changes in tidal amplitude during the 20th century. Future research needs should focus on the quantitative interpretation of data to understand the effect of sea-level rise on beach erosion, flood risk, and fresh and salt groundwater distribution. Furthermore, a thorough socio-economic study should be undertaken to assess the vulnerability of the Belgian coast and the Schelde estuary.
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Vol. 2008 • No. 242