After the flood you strengthen the dykes

The New York Times has an excellent, if slightly triumphalist article up about how the Dutch handle flooding risks and water management in the face of climate change, most of which focuses on the technical nitty gritty, but which also has some insight in the mentality behind them:

“It’s in our genes,” he said. “Water managers were the first rulers of the land. Designing the city to deal with water was the first task of survival here and it remains our defining job. It’s a process, a movement.

“It is not just a bunch of dikes and dams, but a way of life.”

Of course it’s a way of life in a country that has been literally won from the sea which without dykes would be three quarters flooded. It’s no coincidence that the waterschappen — the local water management equivalents of city councils or muncipalities — are our oldest democratic institutions. The Netherlands is shaped by a thousand year struggle of keeping out the sea, winning new land from it and regaining what was lost through storms and flooding. With the most recent disastrous flood still firmly in living memory, it’s no wonder there’s a seriousness to water management and climate change that a country like the United States, perfectly willing to let a major city drown, lacks.

So while our politicians might be just as idiotic and in denial about climate change as anywhere else, there is no debate on how to counteract the consequences of it for our country, at least in this context. However, this hasn’t gone entirely without a hitch. The current water management approach and philosophy took time to evolve, in some ways is diametrically opposed to traditional Dutch values.

The instinctive response to the floodings of 1953 was to immediately start strengthening the dykes, but now systematically, according to the socalled Delta Plan. Instead of just strengthening the existing dykes, the decision was made to redue the existing coastline, by closing off all the river openings between the Westerschelde leading to Antwerpen and the Nieuwe Waterweg leading to Rotterdam. A real technocratic approach to things, which ran into trouble once the ecological impact of the closings became known. Hence why the Oosterschelde wasn’t dammed in the end, but got a storm surge barrier that’s normally opened, but closes during storm conditions, keeping the ecology of the estuary alive but still protecting against flooding.

Around the turn of the millennium the Deltaplan was largely completed and it seemed we were save from the water, but then it turned out we forgot about the rivers. The reason the Netherlands is a delta is of course because the Rhine, Maas and Scheldt flow into the sea here and with the more unpredictable weather and more frequent winter downpours, any access river water will ultimately flood here as well. We got a rough wakeup with a series of flood threats in the late nineties, which proved that the previous approach of just damming in rivers with no room for them to roam was no longer working.

types of flood measures taken to give rivers more room for absorbing floods

instead we got a nationwide approach on the lines of what the article descripes for Rotterdam: Room for the River. Create room for a river to meander and it has more room to absorb flood water. Counterintutitive for a country that has always prided itself on taming water, not working with it. And certainly there has been local resistance against e.g. deliberately returning a polder back to the sea. But on the whole the idea that climate change means more unpredictable weather and therefore more flood danger that needs to be defended against, is not controversial. And as a country we are rich enough to defend ourselves against such relatively simple dangers. The problem is that the more unforseeable dangers of climate change are still largely ignored and that for the past decades we’ve on the whole had more climate change skeptic than aware governments…


To call a woman a kenau in Dutch is to call her a harridan, a bitch, harsh, strident, aggressive, taking on masculine qualities. It’s a slur that’s rooted in an actually existing, historical woman, Kenau Simonsdochter Hasselaer, a Haarlem born widow, woodsmerchant and shipbuilder who became famous due to her role in the siege of her hometown by the Spanish in 1573.

As you of course know, the Netherlands fought the Eighty Years War to liberate themselves from Spanish and Catholic oppression, a large part of which consisted of the siege and countersiege of rebel or loyal cities. Haarlem in the 1570s was one of the richest, most important cities in the north of Holland and when it rebelled the Spanish were quick to put it down. The siege ended in a defeat for the rebels, but not before Kenau’s role in it had become legend.

19th century painting of Kenau Hasselaer on the walls of Haarlem by Barent Wijnveld and J.H. Egenberger

As legend has it, Kenau Hasselaer was the leader of an army of women who fought together with the men on the walls of Haarlem, pouring boiling pitch and water over the Spanish troops attempting to climb the walls. How historical this is, has been disputed, but what’s undisputed was that she was involved in supporting the soldiers on the walls, organising repair works and the like.

But of course the idea of Kenau Hasselaer as the firebreathing leader of a monstrous regiment of women is much more interesting, something that was played up in Dutch propaganda after the siege and which ultimately led to her name becoming the synonym for an aggressive woman, with the connection to the historical figure forgotten. A new Dutch movie, which premiered only this week, seeks to restore that connection, to rehabilitate Kenau as a name of pride, not a slur.

Course, being a Dutch film it’s not likely to be much good, but the idea is interesting.

Boeing employees sweeping the streets of Amsterdam?

volunteers for the street cleaning day

So I was bringing my garbage bags to the collection point (an underground storage bin, meaning I can bring out my garbage whenever I need to, instead of once a week) and I saw this group of people standing there. Nosey as I am, I immediately asked what was happened and it turned out to be a sponsored cleanup of the neigbourhood. Apparantly these happen regularly, but at times I’m in work so I’ve always missed them. Organised by the stadsdeel, usually these include volunteers from the neigbourhood, but not this time. This time there was a group of volunteers from Boeing (!) of all companies, sponsored by their company to spent an afternoon cleaning up one of the poorer districts in Amsterdam. This is something Amsterdam city council encourages in the current climate of budget cuts, a nice and easy way for companies like Boeing to show off their social conscience and a cheap way for Amsterdam to get some work done that normally should’ve been done by city employees.


It’s well intentioned on all sides of course and certainly not as bas as what happened in Den Haag, where at least one street cleaner lost his job, only to have to do the same work to keep his unemployment benefits, saving the council 400 euros a month… Yet it still feels wrong to have this corporate voluntarism, even if it’s the best the stadsdeel can do at the moment. I’d rather see people getting paid a living wage to do this work, work that needs to be done, than having to rely on volunteers to do the same work, especially volunteers from big multinational corporations hoping to get some good p.r. from it.

The watersnoodramp: the Dutch 9/11

If there is an event that changed the Dutch as much as 9/11 changed the US, the Watersnoodramp, the flood disaster of 1953, was it.

This is a comparison I wouldn’t have reached on my own, but it is true. For those who went through the Watersnoodramp it was the biggest shock of their lives, perhaps an even bigger shock than living through World War II had been. That disaster after all was manmade, with convenient villains and which could be easily remade into a self flattering narrative of a plucky little country standing up to the might of the efficient, ruthless nazi hordes. But to be overwhelmed by nature, by the old enemy, the sea, the enemy we were supposed to have tamed and bound our will, suddenly showing just how fragile our defences really were: that shocked us to the core, that hit us in the national psyche.

a map of the area hit by the flood

And like 9/11, while the disaster seemed to come out of the blue, the reality was that it had been predicted long before it happened. The southwest of the netherlands is a delta, where two huge rivers, the Rhine and the Schelde, come together and flow into the sea. Much of the land within the delta, in the provinces of Zuid-Holland, Noord-Brabant and Zeeland is artificial, won from the sea through centuries of patient dyke building and inpoldering; land reclamation. It lies therefore mostly below the normal water level already, only kept from flooding through the dykes. And because of the long coast line and the high costs of dyke strengthening, many of those dykes were strong enough to withstand normal flooding conditions, but not strong enough to withstand the extra strong surge of water that resulted from a combination of springtide and an unusually heavy storm on the North Sea.

To continue the comparison with 9/11, the response to the disaster was similar as well. Suddnely there was money and political will to implement the safety measures experts had been advocating for decades. But where after 9/11 this led to the TSA and the need to take your shoes off before boarding a plane, in Holland we go the Delta Works. Instead of merely repairing and strengthening the existing water defence works, instead the decision was made to radically alter and shorten the Dutch coastline, by closing up all those estuary mouths and inlets, except those that led to the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp, of course.

But while we started off energetically to dam all the things, greater environmental awareness led to huge campaigns from the seventies onwards to stop the damming of the last remaining estuary, the Oosterschelde. Instead we got the stormfloodkering: a dam that’s normally open, but can close during springtides or at other dangerous times. This keeps the Oosterschelde at roughly the same salt level as it was at before the dam, keeps the normal tides coming in and out, hence keeping the ecosystem that was there before the dam alive. It was vastly more expensive than a simple dam would’ve been, but it’s the perfect compromise between safety and nature and has created the eight wonder of the world.