AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Netherlands wants to redraw the map of Europe -- literally.
Dubai has built Palm Island. Now the world leaders in land reclamation are considering an island in the shape of a tulip to fight overcrowding and shield the coastline from the rising sea.
Supporters of the scheme say it will give Dutch companies a chance to showcase water management skills that are increasingly in demand due to global warming, but critics say the plan will be prohibitively expensive and harm delicate ecosystems.
While a poll in October by research company TNS NIPO with the Red Cross showed the Dutch are more afraid of flooding than a terrorist attack, many have a strong faith in Dutch expertise and technology to protect them from the water.
The Dutch parliament has asked a commission on coastal development to look into the idea of building islands in the North Sea that could be used for housing, farming or a nature reserve, while at the same time helping to protect the coast.
"People live on top of each other in the Netherlands," said Christian Democrat politician Joop Atsma, who sponsored a parliamentary motion on building in the North Sea. "We are hungry for land. A huge area is needed for building."
Atsma says high land prices threaten the country's position as the world's third biggest exporter of agricultural products, and make a 100,000 hectare island potentially worth 10 billion euros ($14.69 billion) -- enough of a return to fund the project.
A government body set up to promote innovation has drawn up proposals for an island about 50 km long, sparking fierce debate which inspired one blogger to joke that a cannabis leaf may be a more suitable shape than the tulip on the formal plans.
"The Netherlands has a lot of know-how in terms of water. It exports this knowledge but it is missing out on innovation. More experiments are needed in the fields of alternative energy, tides and wind," said Maria Henneman of Innovation Platform.
"Of course it is an expensive investment but with current technology a lot is possible."
The Netherlands -- literally the Low Countries -- has a long history of pioneering technology to help it claw back land from the sea and fight recurrent flooding.
U.S. officials sought advice from Dutch experts on water management after floods devastated New Orleans in 2005, and Dutch firms have been central in major coastal developments worldwide.
Dutch firm Boskalis developed techniques during the Zuiderzee and Delta projects to become the world's largest dredger, helping build the island for Hong Kong's airport and now working on Oman's "Wave" project -- a huge resort added to the coast.
Dubai's island, that juts into the shallow waters of the Gulf in the shape of a palm tree, was built by Dutch marine contractor Van Oord using more than 100 million cubic meters of sand.
"I live far below sea level and I have never had wet feet at home," Atsma said. "So much can be done with water management."
One of the world's most densely populated countries with 16 million people living in an area about half the size of Scotland , a quarter of the Netherlands is below sea-level and it lies on the flood plains of three big rivers.
The country's earliest inhabitants built their homes and farmsteads on mounds to protect them from flooding. From around 1300, windmills were developed to pump water off low-lying land. Steam-driven pumps accelerated the process in the 19th century.
In 1932, work was completed on a mammoth 32-km dike that closed the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea and allowed 1,650 square km of land to be drained.
After devastating floods in 1953 killed more than 1,800 people, the Dutch launched one of the world's largest construction schemes -- the Delta project -- to raise dikes, close sea estuaries and build a huge storm-surge barrier.
Scientists expect global warming to raise sea levels along the Dutch coast by up to 85 cms in the next century, and cause more severe storms that could make rivers more likely to flood.
"Funny shapes like tulips, clogs and windmills are a good way to start a debate, but they should not be considered as realistic," said Bert Groothuizen, spokesman for Van Oord, the builder of the Dubai palm island.
While Dubai's Gulf rarely sees waves above two meters high, the North Sea is much stormier with waves of up to 10 meters.
"The seaward protection must be stronger than in the Arabian Gulf which means that construction costs are greater," he said, adding it might be more realistic to extend current Dutch beaches into the sea or move the main airport onto a new island.
That idea was already floated after a plane crashed into an apartment block in Amsterdam in 1992, but it was shelved due to cost and environmental concerns. Nature-lovers have also scuppered plans to drain more land onshore.
Independent environmental group the North Sea Foundation notes that an artificial island could disrupt shipping, fishing and migrating birds.
"The North Sea is not a wasteland where you can do whatever you want. Especially the coastal zone is one of the most fertile seas in the world. An island would do a lot of damage to the animal life," said the foundation's Lisa van der Veen.
Given rising sea levels, Van der Veen said it made more sense to protect existing land than build a new island:
"If you build houses on it you would have to build it really high to protect it from storms and waves. Building an island is a huge investment and you could much easier fortify the dikes."
Editing by Sara Ledwith