Turning the Tide
Water has played a pivotal role in shaping the Dutch national identity. Simone McKenzie investigates
PHOTOGRAPHY: MARIEKE VAN DER VELDEN
“God created Earth, but the Dutch created The Netherlands.” So goes the old saying. With two-thirds of its land reclaimed from the water, and 60% of its population living below sea level, water has shaped the Dutch landscape and the identity of its people.
“Water is both a friend and a threat,” says Han van der Horst, author of The Low Sky: Understanding the Dutch. “Foreigners always think the Dutch fight water and defeat it, but you cannot defeat water. It’s too strong. You have to find a means for man to cohabit with the rivers and the sea.”
Finding these means has been the prime concern of the Dutch people for the last thousand years, and the skills required for fighting the sea have indelibly marked the national character.
“The basis of good water management is to find a compromise between water, people and animals,” says Van der Horst. “You must show your strength. Now and then, you must give way, understanding that at times it’s the right thing to do and not something to be ashamed of.
“You must be rational, and use common sense. You should not be driven by your emotions, especially anger. You must always show moderation. And you cannot be sloppy, or you’ll wake up with your feet wet. All of these things are in the national character. They’re ingrained in our way of living and thinking.”
The Dutch pushed back the sea first in AD1000. People had been drawn to what is now The Netherlands by the area’s rich, fertile soil, but it sat on the delta of three major rivers – the Rhine, the Meuse and the Scheldt – and in peat swamps protected only by natural dunes and prone to flooding. In the tenth century, these intrepid settlers began to push back, and the first dykes and dams were built.
Over many years, these farmers and tradesmen nudged the dykes further out to sea by building on top of the natural sediment left by endless tide cycles. Slowly, towns grew on top of the dams. The original dam across the Amstel River was built where Amsterdam’s central square, Dam, now stands.
This slow, steady acquisition of land from the sea has required a certain level-headedness, and a pragmatic approach to keeping water out. The Netherlands today has 27 waterschappen, or local water boards, which govern the daily maintenance of the 3,500 kilometres of flood defences. The Dutch word schap, or community, comes from the word scheppen, which means both to shovel and to create. This seems fitting in a country where communities could only be created by moving earth to defend against water.
Since the Middle Ages, those sharing life on a polder – low-lying reclaimed land surrounded by dykes – have had to set aside differences and work together to guard against floods. The idea of compromise between individual desires and what is best for the community has became known as the ‘polder model’. It can, to some degree, still be seen in the way the country is governed today, where government allowances ensure everyone can afford the obligatory health insurance, where neighbourhoods have a mix of private and social housing no matter how affluent the area, and in the collective agreements reached in many work places.
“The polders were created by solving what’s known as a collective action problem,” says René Torenvlied, Professor of Sociology at Utrecht University. “People had to come up with some joint action to fight water. One person alone couldn’t do it, but as a collective enterprise they succeeded. They needed to trust each other to put their share into the joint project, to find a solution that was good for everyone. This is also reflected in Dutch politics. We have a multi-party system where there has never been a single-party majority government,” he says.
In a country that has only ever had coalition governments, the spirit of compromise pervades every aspect of life. Few big decisions are made without the formation of a committee where all of the competing interests can be brought to the table to reach some kind of consensus.
“Coalition is the only option,” says Van der Horst. Quoting another well-used Dutch saying, which like so many of the language’s colloquialisms can be traced back to the national obsession with water: “Your enemy today might be your partner tomorrow.”
The areas most at risk today are also the wealthiest and most densely populated. With disasters still in living memory, such as the 1953 Watersnoodramp in which more than 1,800 people died, minds remain focussed on containing the sea. The fact that sea levels are expected to rise by 65-130 centimetres by 2100 ensures that the issue is not forgotten. In the most at risk areas, water defences are built to withstand a “one in 10,000 years” flood. Rivers further inland can hold the kind of surge that might happen once every 1,250 years.
Alongside the dykes, dams and giant storm surge barriers, the authorities work with nature, with simple measures like planting grass on sand dunes to prevent soil dispersal, and 12 million cubic metres of sand are moved each year to help keep the coastline at 1990 levels. And further afield, the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) agreement obliges all members of the Dutch water sector to work towards reducing the percentage of people in the world with insufficient access to drinking water and sanitation by half, which might suggest that the neighbourliness of the polder model is being exported beyond Dutch borders.
For the moment, water, and the dangers and opportunities it brings, remain front of mind.
Water’s influence has seeped into the nation’s cultural history too. Perhaps the best-known example is Piet Mondrian’s 1920’s work of black grids on white, interspersed with blocks of primary colours and inspired by the patchwork pattern of the country’s dykes. But, says Pieter Roelofs, curator of 17th-century Dutch paintings at the Rijksmuseum, “water is so related to this country that it has affected Dutch art for centuries”. The Saint Elizabeth’s Flood was explicitly depicted in 15th-century paintings, while 17th-century painter Hendrik Vroom is considered a pioneer of seascape painting, and Willem van der Velde (the younger) is considered one of the genre’s greatest practitioners. These images from the Dutch Golden Age often show the sea as angry and violent, either through the nature of its storms or the ferocity of naval battles. And it should hardly be surprising that a nation carved out of the sea became such a significant naval power.
Expertise for export
With centuries of experience in water management, the Dutch are exporting their knowledge around the world. Projects include wave studies and land reclamation in Dubai; a 25-kilometre flood barrier for St. Petersburg across the Bay of Finland; and rebuilding New Orleans after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some of the world’s most futuristic houseboats, floating parks, and forests are planned for the future.