Dutch dikes, water, and the wizards who master it

Although the Dutch social imaginaries of and discourses on water are not a univocal, it is univocally stressed that Dutch history, the landscapes, democratic institutions, ‘modern civilisation’, and supposedly the political culture of seeking compromises, are all unthinkable without the ‘battle against the water’ throughout history and the thereof emerging technologies, mega-constructions such as the Delta works, and institutions such as the water boards (Van den Brink 2007, Van Dam 2000). Approximately fifty percent of the country today lies below sea level, and almost the whole Dutch landscape is human-made from the Middle Ages onwards. A vicious circle of human response to increasingly frequent flooding kept changing the landscape with more and stronger dikes (Van der Vleuten & Disco 2007). The technology to separate land from water developed from ditches, dikes and sluices to windmills and pumping stations and eventually the megastructures of large dams and storm surge barriers. All these constructions have intensively recreated the Dutch landscape, to such an extent that there is an internationally famous cliché that ‘God created the earth and the Dutch created the Netherlands’ (Ten Brinke 2007).

Whilst every young Dutch citizen learns about the homeland’s water history in school, which is presented as something to be proud of, nowadays water is hardly a topic of real concern in everyday life. Water as a ‘threat’ is seen as something of the past, in the consciousness of most Dutch people at least. The hydraulic engineers and water authorities make sure of that. Even more so, water almost seems to be taken for granted, not just by myself but by many other Dutch inhabitants. Clean drinking water runs from the tap, the shower, and even the toilet. Drinking water, water to sprinkle the garden, and water to swim in or sail on, the ‘nice sorts’, are always abundantly available, whilst the ‘nasty sorts’, in the form of storm surges, waste water, or heavy rains, are conveniently kept from us or dealt with by water professionals and technologies. We do not have to worry about it, and we indeed do not.

The Dutch social imaginary of water seems to be engrained with pride of the water engineering ‘superiority’ of the Dutch in the world, as well as a deep trust in these engineers’ skills in keeping us safe and arranging fine drinking water for all inhabitants. This pride of and trust in the water engineers resonates in my own imagination of water, too, that is nourished by the way my grandmother talks about De Ramp (the disaster) of 1953, in which the dikes of the province of Zeeland broke during an immense storm surge. Seawater flooded the polders and in one week 1.835 people drowned and more than 750.000 inhabitants were affected (Bijker 2007). After De Ramp, the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier was constructed, a megastructure that is open under normal circumstances but can be closed when s storm surges is forecast. The thing is promoted worldwide as a technological wonder, and advertised as “the eighth modern wonder of the world” (Van der Ham et al. 2018), constructed by the Dutch “water wizards” (Van der Vleuten & Disco 2004).

In the midst of the disaster, my own grandparents and their family had to flee to Tilburg, where they lived with a host family for six weeks, because the water came all the way to our village. As a child I was often intrigued by my grandmother’s stories. For her, the sea had literally threatened her life, forever impacting her relationship with water and always proud at ‘our’ dikes and other structures. When she only recently visited the museum near the Delta works with my mother, she turned emotional again whilst seeing the videos of the breaking of the dikes, even after more than sixty years. Through listening to her stories, my grandmother’s relation with water must have seeped through generations.

The Dutch water history is constantly and proudly reproduced by politicians: they point at the Dutch ‘tradition’ to find compromises through the ‘polder model’, rooted in the first water boards, and promote the Dutch water expertise worldwide as an export product. By this continuous reproduction of pride, the Dutch-water relation arguably becomes deeply engrained in people’s shared imaginaries and sense of nationality. This imaginary then again finds its way in new plans to master the water, for example in the construction of new islands in the IJsselmeer, of building new land to expand the port of Rotterdam, and to design large off-shore windmill parks. The Dutch relation with water seems to manifest itself merely through their relation with water technology, rather than with water in itself.

Considering the Dutch history with water, it is at least curious that many present-day ecological movements also (almost) seem to take water and water technologies and infrastructures for granted, at least as they play out in the Netherlands. Although off-shore windmill parks harm marine ecosystems, most large ecological movements praise the renewability of wind energy, also in offshore parks, as a good constituent for fossil fuel. There is also no conspicuous ecological protest against the repairing and strengthening of dikes and pumping of the water, nor against ‘building new nature’. In fact, Dutch ecological movements that revolve around water-related ecological damage or conflict, or about water in general, are pretty rare. There are the well-known Plastic Soup Foundation and Ocean Clean-up, organisations that aim to raise awareness on the large negative effects of plastic waste on the oceans and marine life, and to reduce plastic consumption. These organisations are not targeting the Netherlands only, but the whole world. They can afford to: Dutch beaches are not as filled with waste compared to the Indonesian beaches. Telling is also the example of response to earthquakes in the province Groningen that occur because of drilling for natural gas. The dikes surrounding Groningen at the coast are damaged because of these earthquakes. Whilst thousands of Groningen inhabitants are struggling with the gas company for financial compensation and repair of their dwellings, the water boards immediately received large amounts of money to repair and strengthen the dikes along the coast. This is not questioned nor contested by activists who support the Groningen people. It is seen as a priority. The simple explanation for this apparent lack of water movements are: we need strong dikes because otherwise we would all drown; wind energy is more ‘sustainable’ than fossil fuels; new ‘nature’ in the IJsselmeer is good for birds. More complex explanations could lie in a relation with and imaginary of water shaped by a hierarchy in which humans are superior to the rest of the ecology.

However, at least one interesting movement to focus on for this research might be the Parliament of Things and the Embassy of the North Sea, established in 2018. The Parliament of Things is an open space for conversations between humans, things, animals and plants, based on the book We have never been modern by Bruno Latour (1991). In the summer of 2018, as spin-off of the Parliament of Things, the Embassy of the North Sea has worked on a plan for the years until 2030. Their strategy consists of imagining, connecting, and representing. It uses imagination as a catalyst of revising relationships with the North Sea and to develop alternative scenarios for the future. It aims to give a political voice to nonhuman North Sea stakeholders and researches relations and forms new ecological movements. The movement’s website notes: “We live together with the sea. She fascinates and nourishes us, once we emanated from her. At the same time, we feared and subdued this great mirror of our land. The sea always stirs, in many ways.” The movement wonders what, nowadays, is our relations with “our largest public space”. Its vision is described as follows: “The North Sea belongs to herself. In the Anthropocene, new forms of imagination, connection and representation are needed to see and understand the North Sea in all her diversity. The Embassy of the North Sea unites, in urgent and ingenuous manners, humans and non-humans in and around the North Sea. Building more inclusive sea-perspectives, the Embassy of the North Sea investigates whether the North Sea must be an independent legal person.” This type of reasoning intends to resonate the anti-anthropocentric ideas and at the same time challenges us to re-imagine our relation with the sea, by using all of our senses.