Adapt or drown: Water Management in the Province of North Holland

“My father was born in that windmill,” Jos said as he briefly took his hand off the stick shift and pointed across the boggy landscape of the province of North Holland. Now unused, windmills across the Netherlands are reminders of the country’s rich history of land reclamation. Roughly one third of the country lies below sea level; the water was pumped out to create land for agriculture, livestock, towns, and cities. I heard those familiar words, “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

Essentially, the Dutch build bathtubs by raising the sides of the tub with dikes and levees then pump the water out to create a polder. The windmills were the original pumps. Since the 1700s, they have been replaced by coal-fired and steam plants, and now they are completely powered by electricity. The windmills, although they are no longer functional, are a reminder of how long the Dutch have been at work creating the landscape they take for granted today.

Jos Besteman is the director of legal affairs for the Hollands Noorderkwatier Hoogheemraadschap, one of twenty-five water boards in the Netherlands. A Water Board is a public office in charge of preventing floods, keeping the land dry, and treating wastewater. If your affair falls under any context of ‘water management,’ then water board is in charge.

The water boards were some of the earliest democratic institutions in the world, developed in the Netherlands in the 13th century by councils of farmers and landowners who shared common interests in protecting their land from water. Since then, the original 1,500 water boards have consolidated into 25. The province of North Holland is one of the largest boards. Much of the province used to be a patchwork of lakes, so the Hollands Noorderkwatier Hoogheemraadschap has a lot to monitor.

It is an unusual form of governance, and likely unrepeatable in other part of the world. The boards were established even before the formation of the modern country. If one was set up in another part of the world, there is no simple way to answer the question: who should pay for a specific water defense? It would be difficult to assign the boundaries of a New York City water board and even more troublesome to convince all residents to the benefits of paying a water-management tax. Already in the Netherlands, the public is discontent about the premium they have to pay for flood defense. “We need a storm,” one of Jos’s colleagues told me, “people need to be convinced that this is actually something worth paying for.”

In fact, water management is so engrained into the Dutch landscape that most of the Netherlands doesn’t even consider the benefits the thousands of kilometers of dikes, pumping stations, and storm barriers provide them with. Water is the Dutch condition, but it is so transparent that most cannot even see what it actually does. The Dutch don’t even think about water.

“The local football fields here actually shift, depending on how much water is saturated in the ground below them. The players have no idea.”

Jos Besteman drove me out to the ‘weak point’ of the coastal flood defenses a 30 foot tall dike along the beach. The dike grows out of the landscape like a significant rumple in an otherwise completely flat carpet.  The curved hump of compounded clay breaks the force of currents, wind, and waves. It is much stronger than a flat concrete wall would be. The dike stretched for over 60km and is a primary defense from the North Sea.

At first impression, I couldn’t understand why the massive structure, recently renovated in 2007 was the weak point of the defense. It came clearer once I climbed on top of it. To my right was the whitewater of the North Sea and to my left a small farming village, seemingly playing Russian roulette with the forces of nature. “So a little water spilling over the top would be bad, but the real disaster occurs if part of the dike caved in,” I hypothesized.

“The town has relocated about 5 times in its history,” I was told. “The ruins of the old town are lying right there under the sea.”

“When’s the next move?”

“At this point, there is no where to go. These people will stay and fight the water, or be swept away with it.” For now, the town needs to rely on the computer systems, geologic modeling, knowledge and insight of the water board and the good faith in the firm protection of the dike. It’s not just the proximal towns relying on this construction though.

“The whole system of dikes and levees is so connected throughout the country. Everything affects something else. Engineered constructions in North Holland are what keep Amsterdam, 80km to the south protected from the sea.”

I thought of the works of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, and other Dutch masters, the churches, museums, and bridges whose longevity is dependent on the storm defense I was standing on. Then I thought about the masses living in Amsterdam—the commotion in Centraal Station, the buzz of the cyclists alongside the canals, and the stoned teenage tourists wandering through the city corridors, all completely oblivious to this impressive structure. It is just one impressive piece of the network that keeps the country dry.

Yet still, this dike is a concern for the water board. It was the weak point of the whole coastal defense. The dike was built as a substitute for sand dunes in the only stretch of coast where sand dunes do not exist naturally. When I first noticed the sand dunes in the hazy horizon, I finally understood why there were perceived shortcomings of the dike defense.

In contrast to the expansive fields that could be likened to the plains of the Midwest, the dunes looked mountainous. During my six weeks in the Netherlands, I have become well adjusted to living on or below sea level, and playing rugby on the unofficial lowest rugby pitch in the world. My knees began to shake as I climbed the 52-meter dunes, the tallest topography of North Holland. The dunes stretch inland 5km from the coast. “This is the safest place in the Netherlands,” Jos told me, “this is where I’d come if the dikes break.”

“You wouldn’t retreat to Switzerland?” I asked, thinking what I would do in the situation.

Jos smiled, as if I had asked a silly childish question. He thought for a second then softly remarked, “My family can be traced back 500 years to tribes that lived on this land. They say my great-great-great-great-way-back-great grandfather was one of the initial investors on one of the earliest polders (reclaimed land). My cousins are farmers here. I am one of my only friends who haven’t left this area. I married a girl whose family has been on this land for 200 years and mine has been around for 500.”

Jos had grown up in this region, commuted to the University of Amsterdam to study and never left. He told me, “If you ask anybody working at the waterschap why they are working here, the vast majority will answer ‘because I love this land and I want to work to protect it.’”

For the Dutch, protecting their land from the looming threats of the water is a source of national pride and personal pride. It is their country, the land, and their history at stake. The idea is engrained into the motto of the Royal Family, “Je Maintiendrai.”

I will maintain.

Image 1
Jos explains a map from the 17th century. The dark green areas are fields reclaimed from lakes. The stretch of coast under Jos’s elbow to the right are the sand dunes. The white rectangle above his left shoulder is the dune-less stretch where there is a man-made dike discussed above.
photo 1
The water board’s coat of arms.

Here Jos Besteman explains the evacuation strategy of North Holland:

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