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.

Imagining in the Anthropocene

How do people imagine water, how did they do so historically, and what does that mean? René ten Bos (2015) argues that people seem to take water and its life-giving characteristics for granted, or ignore it. Especially in western thinking, he argues, water has long been ‘objectified’, not seen as something with intrinsic value, but only as something ‘out there’ that humans can use or must control. Imaginaries revolving around water seem to link to a certain human relation to water, and the nonhuman world in general, in which water and other things of the earth are ontologically reduced to being resources, commodities, external supplies, that can be measured, tamed, mastered and/or used by humans. In such a way of thinking, it is overlooked that water is a fundamental part of life on earth and literally a large part of ourselves. This denial, indifference, or downplaying of water’s importance arguably allows for a way of treating it – and the nonhuman world in general – that is only utilitarian and hierarchical: humans above the rest. With such a way of thinking, the step towards doing ecological harm, unintentionally or carelessly, is easily taken, allowing for damming rivers, for dumping waste and chemicals in the ocean, if only it is benefitting or convenient for human beings. Scholars argue that this social imaginary of water, its reduction to its utilities, is one of the root causes of ecological disaster that we need to challenge and question (see for example Ten Bos 2015; Neimanis 2012, and the recent IPBES[1] report 2019).

This idea about water and the controllable ecology has plausibly already been dominant, at least in western thought, since the ancient Greek philosophers and came even more into fashion since the industrial and scientific revolution. Although one of the first European philosophers, Thales of Milete, did coin that water is the primary element that all life begins with, since Socrates and Plato water has not been (philosophically) referred to as the fundamental principle of life (Ten Bos 2015). Since then, western philosophers and thinkers seem to have “attempted to grasp solid ground”: flow and liquid seemed to be too dangerous and dynamic, we cannot rely on it. In this time, bodily senses and the imagination became inferior to the use of logos (ratio) whilst philosophising. In the seventeenth century, senses and imagination in philosophical thought got an even lesser status (Sepper 1989). With the dualist ideas of René Descartes, a binary way of thinking bloomed that conceptually separated the body from the mind, nature from culture, emotion from ratio, and humans from nonhumans (Huggan & Tiffin 2007, Leiss 1994). Descartes argued that the mind is superior over the body, because that is where reason is located, whereas in the body only passion and irrationality are found (Culhane 2016). Following Descartes’ philosophy, the idea became popular that using ratio and critical thinking offers us the best way of knowing the world, and the imagination only distract us from fully comprehending it (Sepper 1989).

Humans in large parts of the world started to believe that we could know, control and use everything in the world by using rational thought. With the invention of the steam engine and the industrial revolution, these ideas of measuring, using and exploiting nature became practiced, amongst other things (but not solely) in the massive extraction of resources for the processes of production. From this revolution onwards, water literally became the lubricant for industrialisation, urbanisation, and agricultural intensification, all processes that required enormous amounts, secure supplies, and fine qualities of water (Bakker 2012). Whilst people had long been using and manipulating water by irrigation systems, redirecting streams and creating water mills, the increasing demands for water in the industrial revolution, the growth of capitalism, and urbanisation – processes that embarked in the seventeenth century and accelerated over the next two hundred years – were of an unprecedented order (Linton 2010).

Not only in relation to water but more generally as well, in the industrial revolution human beings started to change the globe decisively, to such an extent that it marked a turning point in history: the beginning of what scholars widely agree to be a new epoch called the Anthropocene. In this epoch, human beings are directly and indirectly impacting the world unprecedentedly and permanently to such an extent that it is leading to global warming, biodiversity loss and other environmental crises (Crutzen 2002, Zalasiewicz 2013, Lewis & Maslin 2015). There is large scholarly consensus that due to the accelerating use of fossil fuels and rapid societal changes, the industrial revolution marks the Anthropocene’s beginning[2] (Crutzen 2002).

Contested imaginaries

In present times, the urge to ‘do something’ against or mitigate ecological crises is not only felt by scientists but also by many (but far from all) citizens and politicians. According to Anna Tsing, humans started to become aware that they could destroy the liveability of the planet after the bomb on Hiroshima: grasping the atom was “the culmination of humans dreams of controlling nature. It was also the beginning of those dreams’ undoing” (2015: 3). This ‘undoing’ surfaces in the rapid increase of climate marches and student protests (New York Times 2018), investments in technological innovation, climate policies and international treaties (United Nations 2015).

However, thinking of ‘nature’ as usable and controllable for human benefit remains dominant. Infinite economic growth and progress remain the ultimate aims of most states. Politicians, technocrats and scientists attempt to measure effects and predict the impact of current and future environmental crises. They seem to be convinced that better measurements, more efficient use of water and other ‘resources’, and technological solutions will solve the problems (Raworth 2018). Economic growth ought to be a prerequisite to be able to invest in such innovations, and in this logic, consumption and production must continue to increase too (Raworth 2018). The ideas that humans are superior over nonhumans, that water must be tamed and controlled for human’s most efficient use and protection, and that economic growth is crucial for society’s welfare, remain the dominant discourses.

A paradox emerges here: one the one hand, societies are aiming for economic growth as priority, and on the other hand, that growth must be ‘sustainable’, ‘as much as possible’ (source). The paradox, or double-bind (Bateson 1972, Eriksen 2016,), lies in that economic growth inherently requires an increase of production, consumption, energy-use and resource extraction. ‘Sustainable growth’ – often implied by politicians and international institutions like the Sustainable Development Goals – can be called a hoax: ‘economic growth’ and ‘sustainability’ are two inherently incompatible things. Scholars as well as environmental movements therefore suggest that current and future ecological crises are not simply solvable by technological innovations, better measurements, and political policies without breaking with a focus on perennial economic growth, ideas of progress and a rationality of measuring and counting everything, that are dominant in western thinking (see for example Eriksen 2016; Escobar 1995, Acosta 2016, Gudynas 2011).

In the words of Tsing (2015) and Buell (1995), the ecological challenges we are facing today are related to the way we imagine the ecology. Both argue that environmental crises and Western thought are intrinsically interwoven. Buell stresses that “…western metaphysics and ethics need revision before we can address today’s environmental problems. [The] environmental crisis involves a crisis of the imagination the amelioration of which depends on defining better ways of imagining nature and humanity’s relation to it” (1995: 2). Neimanis (2012), in line with Tsing and Buell, wonders how ‘really’ paying attention to water – how it moves, what it does, what it is threatened by, how it organises itself and other bodies – makes her and other people to treat water better. Raworth (2018) suggest that in order to do that, we must ‘unlearn’ the capitalist economic rationales of infinite growth, measurements of GDP as ‘welfare’, and the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. What we need, these scholars imply, is a radical, new way of thinking about human’s place in the world at large, a turn from the discourse of Descartes’ fashion that separates humans from the rest of the earth and all the living and non-living beings in it. We must, they say, problematise ‘anthropocentrism’, that is, the paradigm in which human beings are believed to be the most important beings of the planet.

[1] The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is a renowned international institution which assesses the state of biodiversity and of the ecosystem services it provides to society. Its reports are approved by 130 governments.

[2] Timothy Morton (2016), amongst others, notes that the Anthropocene already has its roots ten thousand years earlier, with the invention of agriculture. The nature-culture split is the result of a nature-agriculture split, he states (Morton 2016: 43).


Acosta, A. (2016). Buen Vivir, Latijns-Amerikaanse filosofie over goed leven. Ten Have, Amsterdam.

Buell, L. (1995). The environmental imagination. Thoreau, nature, writing, and the formation of Americanculture. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Crutzen, P.J. (2002). Geology of mankind. Nature, 415.

Culhane, D. (2016a). Imagining: an introduction. In Elliot, D. and Culhane, D. (editors). A different kind ofethnography. Imaginative practices and creative methodologies, pp 1-21. University of Toronto Press.

Culhane, D. (2016b). Sensing. In Elliot, D. and Culhane, D. (editors). A different kind ofethnography. Imaginative practices and creative methodologies, pp 1-21. University of Toronto Press.

Eriksen, T.H. (2016). Overheating. An anthropology of accelerated change. Pluto Press, London

Gudynas, E. (2011). Buen Vivir: Today’s tomorrow. Development. 54:4, pp. 441–447.

Huggan, G. and Tiffin, H. (2007). Green postcolonialism. Interventions, 9:1, pp. 1-11.

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) (2019). GlobalAssessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Retrieved 26 June 2019 from https://www.ipbes.net/global-assessment-report-biodiversity-ecosystem-services

Leiss, W. (1994) The domination of nature. McGill Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston, Lewis, S.L. and Maslin, M.A. (2015). Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, 519, pp. 171-180.

Linton, J.I. (2006). What is water? The history and crisis of an abstraction. Doctoral thesis, department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Carleton University.

Morton, T. (2016). Dark ecology. For a logic of future coexistence. Columbia University Press, New York.

Neimanis, A. (2012, May 25). Thinking with water: an aqueous imaginary and an epistemology of unknowability. Paper presented at Entanglements of new materialisms conference, Linkoping, Sweden.

Tsing, A.L. (2015). Mushroom at the end of the world. On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Sepper, D.L. (1989). Descartes and the eclipse of imagination, 1618-1630. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 27:3, pp. 379-403.

Ten Bos, R. (2015). Water. Boom uitgevers, Amsterdam.

Zalasiewicz, J. (2013). The epoch of humans. Nature Geoscience, 6.

El Paro: national protest in Ecuador and framing in the media

This week, I have experienced the specific scent and feel of teargas for the first time. It is in first instance itchy, as if someone put pepper in your nose and eyes. Then it starts to hurt. You cannot breath normally and you start to cry. You want to run away, preferably to the nearest fire. The smoke helps, but it takes time before you’re back to normal. That stuff is not innocent, like you often hear on the news about protests, mostly elsewhere in the world. It doesn’t kill initially, but it does make people blind. It creates panic and people start running in all directions, falling over each other. The police in Ecuador is currently using a lot of teargas.

Initially I intended to write a blog about the climate strike that was organised in Quito on the 27th of September, the day that worldwide people took the streets for “greener” policies and measures of governments and companies. I wanted to write about the reasons why many of my Ecuadorian friends involved in a social-ecological movement were not joining the strike. “It’s organised by people with comfortable lives in rich countries, who are forming the biggest threat to our planet”, was what they told me. It confused me initially, to be honest, because why would they not go to strike for a cause they shared, only because the initiators of the strike are from rich countries? A few days later, whilst writing about the relatively small number of people that showed up (about a thousand), and pondering about why my friends had not joined the strike, I received a message that the city centre was in chaos because of protests. I went outside to have a look, a few-minutes-walk from where I live. That was the 3rd of October and only the beginning.

“Fuera Lenín, Fuera!”

Thousands and thousands of people are on the street. Taxi’s and busses have blocked the main road. Teargas hits my nose and eyes, even from a safe distance. People are scanting “Fuera Lenín, fuera” (away with Lenín Moreno, the president) and spraying “Mierda FMI” (Shit International Monetary Fund, IMF) in graffiti on the walls of the closed shops. People are making fires on the street and others are selling sigarettes, both help against teargas, as I learn. Around the corner I can see confrontations with the police further down. I’ve never seen a mass like that, and so furious. The police uses teargas in order to prevent the protesters from going to the palace, where the president is seated, they respond by throwing stones at the police. The government announced a state of exception for sixty days.

“Away with Lenín” Close to the historical centre of Quito.

The motivation: a stop on fuel subsidies. This might be an example of a “green policy” that was demanded by the climate strikers worldwide last week, but people here are furious and scared. The stop on subsidies is part of a list of measures, announced by President Lenín Moreno a few days earlier, to “improve the Ecuadorian economy”. The budget cuts are ordered by the International Monetary Fund in exchange of a loan. The measures hit people hard, especially the poor who could already hardly get by when the subsidies were still in place. Because of the higher fuel prices, transport and foodprices have increased to such an extent that people cannot afford it anymore.

Actually, this was only the trigger, the so-called last straw that broke the camel’s back. People are angry at Moreno and his government, that in their eyes only enriches its capitalist self, elite classes, and foreign companies. The administration threathens the land of indigenous peoples by giving out mining and oil concessions, even though Moreno in election time promised not to. The fact that the USA military is allowed a basis at the Galapagos Islands, plus the orders by the IMF, is perceived as that the country is sold out. I’ve spoken with many people who feel threathened in their security, not only by the economic measures, but also by enormous police and military agression in the last days. 

Framing and censorship in the media

I find it frustrating that international news media are scarcely and/or inaccurately reporting about the events in Ecuador. One of the first messages I read were written by the Dutch NOS and Algemeen Dagblad, reporting about some tourists that are stuck and that it’s better not to travel here. It embarasses me. Overall, Ecuadorian and international news media predominantly report about“violent protests” and “vandalists” destroying the city. We read about the “economic damage” of the unrest, and that the government is “open for dialogue”. Although (most of it) is not ontrue, it is framing the events in such a way that the protesters are “criminals”, even “terrorists” who destroy the country and don’t want to talk.

We do not read in de media that the police is incredibly aggressive, and violently cracks down on peaceful protesters. The fact that the police intruded a university buidling, used as a refuge for indigenous people who came from the countryside, throwing teargas where old people and women with children were resting, unable to leave the building, remains unreported. Violence by the protesters (that is, only some of them) means fighting by hand, throwing stones found on the street and throwing back the teargas units where they came from, for self-defence. Violence by the police means throwing teargas not only to the frontlines but in the crowds with bystanders too, it means rubber bullets, tanks and armored cars through the streets. Once I was witnessing things from a very safe distance, I thought, close to where children were playing in the park. But suddenly I saw about thirty police officers on motorbikes entering, hunting down the people through the park. There are at least 7 deaths, amongst whom an indigenous leader and a child, more than 500 injured, and more than 700 people in jail without any trial. 

Ecuadorians are forming one big block

I have spoken to dozens of people, from die-hard protesters to people on the street who try to avoid the unrest to go to work, and bystanders, shop owners, my neighbours, taxi-drivers, scientists. I haven’t met a single person who is pro Moreno or against the protests. “La rebellión se justifica”, they all say: the protests are justified, and the president must go. President Moreno’s statement that he is open for dialogue is widely questioned. He has announced not to be willing to change the measurements, and not giving in to “terrorists”.

It is generally known amongst the Ecuadorians that mainstream media are not to be trusted. Instead, a system of civilian “journalism” has been set up through Facebook and Twitter. People forward videos of what happens throughout the country, also at the frontlines of the protest. Which roads are free to go and which ones are blocked is shared on social media platforms. There are posters of “how to prepare against teargas?” and about where and when in the city indigenous people will arrive from the countryside to join the protests, and about people who are wounded by police violence.

At the time of writing, the 9th of October, the largest protest so far has been announced. CONAIE, the national organisation for indigenous people, says that about 40.000 indigenous people have come to Quito to join the protests, and more will come. This morning I woke up by the sound of helicopters. The view over the city is blurred by smoke. Teargas is reaching my terrace. I had never experienced it before, but that smell and feeling is so specific that I will never forget it. In the past week it has become clear to me why my ecologist friends did not join the climate strike: there will simply be no ecological justice without social justice.