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.

Growing up in a human made landscape

It takes somebody who’s strange to your part of the world to truly see what makes it special. Here’s Abi Sutherland on what makes Noord Holland’s polder landscape so different from everything else she’s used to:

The more I go out into the polder, the more I see how that narrow, dark line is the focus of the whole landscape. It gives everything else scale and context. The sky is vaster and emptier against its peaks and curves; the clouds are fluffier for its sharpness. It frames and defines the fields around me. And it surrounds my journeys as well, lying at the beginning and the end of every path. Everywhere I go, I’m heading toward it—though, like a mirage, it dissolves into individual trees, houses and villages as I draw near. But then the ever-varied unified silhouette reappears, reformed, when I leave the settlement and reach the next set of fields.

I grew up on the not quite an island anymore of Walcheren, living in Middelburg, on the mid-east side of it. Growing up we did everything — going to school, the beach, visiting family elsewhere on the island — by bike, which nine out of ten times meant heading out from town into the polder landscapes in the heart of it. Largely flat, with Middelburg one of the oldest and therefore highest settlements, with the rest of Walcheren built polder by polder around it, whichever direction you looked, you’d see a human build line on the horizon. To the east, we’d see the same narrow, dark line of towns and villages Abi talks about; every other direction there would be the dunes. Which look natural, but are of course as artificial as the towns themselves.

picture of dunes near Oostkappele, by Henk Kosters

As a kid, you don’t really question the landscape you grow up in, or think it anything other than natural, in both senses of the world. Sometimes it’s seeing the old and familiar to new eyes to make you realise how unnatural the land you grew up on is.

Death of a linesman

The Guardian reports on the death of linesman Richard Nieuwenhuizen, beaten up at an amateur game in early December and what it means for Dutch football:

Yet moments after the players started shaking hands with the three volunteer officials, Nieuwenhuizen was knocked to the floor, then punched and kicked in the head by several of the Nieuw-Sloten team. Parents immediately ran on to the pitch to try to defuse the situation and get some control. Nieuwenhuizen eventually got back to his feet but he was knocked to the floor for a second time. Witnesses report that one of the Nieuw-Sloten players then took off his shirt, presumably to make it harder for him to be identified, before kicking Nieuwenhuizen while he was on the ground and then running off. Mykel, Nieuwenhuizen’s son, saw everything.

As the article makes clear, the case has become a rorschach blotch for every Dutch anxiety about modern society: racial tension, lack of respect for authorities, youth gone wild, etc. The victim was a white man, a linesman from Almere, the perpetrators allegedly are Moroccan boys from one of the Amsterdam districts with a high level of Dutch-Moroccans. Mix that in with the fact that the victim was a linesman, an authority figure, when there has been a string of horrible assaults of authority figures — police officers, first aid workers, ticket inspectors — in the last few years and you got an incident that was tailor made for Geert Wilders to exploit. Which he promptly did, but which fortunately hasn’t gained much traction

A tragedy such as this of course needs to be taken seriously, though I do think it’s easy to overreact to it as a country or a sport. The vast majority of football fans and players at all levels of Dutch football are decent people and to make great moral judgments out of one incident, no matter how tragic, seems wrong.

What Fun!

The Reggea and ska revival was not just a British movement, in holland too a lot of reggea and ska influences started creeping up in Dutch language pop music as the punk movement with its d.i.y. ethos led to an explosion of new and interesting groups, most noticably Doe Maar, a band that at its peak was as popular in the Netherlands as the Beatles had been in Britain in the sixties. It was the music I grew with in the early eighties and which still influences a lot of what I listen to today But of course since most of that took place in a language few people outside of Holland and Belgium speak, so most of it remained world famous in Holland only.

But every now and again there were glimpses of bigger things. What Fun! was a mixed race band from Haarlem (and hence banned from being played in South Africa), with a sound that wasn’t all that far removed from proper 2-Tone who had their one and only real hit in 1983 with the catchy tune above, “the Right Side One”. Doing well over here, it started getting some real airplay on the BBC as well, until somebody finally noticed, hey, this might just be a song about the Falklands War and yanked it from the playlists…

Canto Ostinato

I’m not sure whether it’s a personal failure or a more general Dutch failing that we don’t know our best musical talents, but it took the obituary of Simeon ten Holt to hear his most famous composition, the Canto Ostinato, written in 1976 – 1979. As you notice after a few minutes listening, it “consists of small, entirely tonal cells which are repeated“, with the duration of any performance left to the performers. Usually played on two or four pianos, it has also been adapted to other instruments, like the harp.

It’s a beautiful piece of music and while firmly in the classical musical tradition, you could almost describe it as a post-punk composition: experimental, minimalist and stripped down to the bare essence but grounded in traditional virtues of musical craft nonetheless…