Guest Post: Water in the Netherlands–Past, Present, and Future

In this guest blog post to iNSo­lu­tion, Jen­nifer Mocarski, who works in Northeastern’s Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive, reflects on her recent trip abroad as part of the Florida Earth Foundation’s US-​​Netherlands Con­nec­tion Project.

The Flood

The Water1400
Exhibit in the Water­snood­mu­seum in the Dutch province of Zeeland.

The storm in the Nether­lands began on a Sat­urday after­noon in Feb­ruary 1953. Ria Geluk, who was 6 years old, told me that it peaked during the night when nation­wide com­mu­ni­ca­tions were on their nightly pause. The radio broad­cast turned off at mid­night, and by the time it resumed at 8 a.m. the next morning dykes had broken in 80 places and entire neigh­bor­hoods had gone imme­di­ately under water.

Still unknowing fam­i­lies, whose homes had not flooded, dressed for church and left as they would on any other Sunday. But when they walked to the oppo­site side of the dyke sur­rounding their homes, many found their neigh­bors’ houses filled with water from the North Sea, Geluk said. To make mat­ters worse, this par­tic­ular Sunday was very windy and planes could not be used for evac­u­a­tions. Twelve hours later the tide came in again and the “second flood” commenced.

Sev­enty thou­sand people were even­tu­ally evac­u­ated, and 1,835 people died. Geluk and her family were not able to return to their home for three years.

When the storm swept through, Europe was still recov­ering from World War II, and there was little effort ded­i­cated to memo­ri­al­izing the flood. Not until 40 years later did people start to pub­licly reflect on the expe­ri­ence. In 2001, Geluk founded the Water­snood­mu­seum, which tells the story of this cat­a­strophic night in Dutch history.

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Memo­rial at the Water­snood museum; names of vic­tims of the 1953 flood scroll through a hallway of sand.

I vis­ited the museum as part of the Florida Earth Foundation’s US-​​Netherlands Con­nec­tion Project. According to its web­site, the project “takes del­e­ga­tions of pro­fes­sionals to the Nether­lands to explore Dutch exper­tise in water infra­struc­ture and man­age­ment, espe­cially as it relates to sea-​​level rise adap­ta­tion and resilience.”

Before the 1953 storm, the Nether­lands already had a long history—according to many, 200,000 years—of man­aging water and the threat of flooding. With two thirds of the country below sea level, water man­age­ment is crit­ical. If left unman­aged, 75 per­cent of Hol­land would be under water within three months. Over five days, my USNC del­e­ga­tion learned about the many ini­tia­tives that keep the country above water.

The Port and Sand Engine

Our visit to Rotterdam’s port was a high­light. As Europe’s most impor­tant port, it is among the 10 largest in the world, the only one in the West, and one of only two out­side China. As the storm of 1953 showed, the Nether­lands must work hard to keep its country afloat. And when it wants to expand its land­mass, it needs to build it. This is what hap­pened back in the ’60s when the Rot­terdam port was first built. The Dutch dredged sand off­shore, deposited it along the coast, and then pro­tected it with dykes. The orig­inal project was called Massvlakte, and in 2008, con­struc­tion of Maasvlakte 2 began and is nearly complete.

Our entryway to Maasvlakte was through the Future­land Infor­ma­tion Center. The name intrigued me when I read it on our itin­erary, and it scared me as we approached in our bus. It was described as “the infor­ma­tion centre for the new port and indus­trial zone reclaimed from the North Sea.” Indus­trial zone was an under­state­ment. There are no trees and very little grass. Man-​​made struc­tures dom­i­nate the land­scape and paint a grim image for the future.

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The road to Futureland.

There are, how­ever, efforts being made to “build with nature,” a phrase we heard throughout our visit. Land that is 12 times the size of the land sac­ri­ficed for the port has been put aside, along with a com­mit­ment to improve the ecology in this area. There are also cycling paths, which, in com­bi­na­tion with the infor­ma­tion center, and the other museums on-​​site, encourage people to visit and learn about the impor­tance of Maasvlakte. This acces­si­bility is nice. Still, I would have liked to see trees, or at least more grass, and less indus­trial con­quest, in a place called Futureland.

After­ward, we made a final stop for the day at a beach along the North Sea, which is the site of the Sand Engine. This project dredged sand from off­shore, deposited it near the coast, and then handed the work over to the water to redis­tribute as one so chooses. Much of the sand washes onto the shore­line, cre­ating new dunes. From my view, it just looked like a beach, and on this day, the beach was cov­ered in sea foam.

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Sea foam and US-​​Netherlands Con­nec­tion delegates

The Canals

If the Maas­valkte I and II projects are the punc­tu­a­tion of the Nether­lands’ sto­ried his­tory of water man­age­ment, the canals are the elo­quent sen­tences weaving through it. I had heard about Holland’s tulips, wind­mills, and wooden shoes. I had heard about Amsterdam’s bikes and legal­ized mar­i­juana. Never, how­ever, had I heard about its canals.

They were in Delft, in The Hague, in Ams­terdam, and I’m sure other Dutch cities, and they are lovely. In Delft, where we stayed for the week, restau­rants line the canals and out­door dining is the norm, not a nov­elty. Bike and walking lanes con­nect the canals, and in Ams­terdam, people float through on their boats, dock on the side and call it home.

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Canal in Delft

After I returned from my trip, I heard a WGBH report dis­cussing canals as a solu­tion for man­aging water in Boston. As Julie Wormser, exec­u­tive director of the Boston Harbor Asso­ci­a­tion said, “Boston is going to have to change, but it doesn’t have to be worse. … What if there were side streets in Boston that could become canals to keep the other streets dry for longer?”

In the Nether­lands, the phrase “Let Op” trans­lates to “Pay Atten­tion.” With all of the bikes, pedes­trians, and cars buzzing around and coex­isting, it is posted in many places and heard often. To Bosto­nians won­dering what our future holds: Let op! We just may have canals one day.

These are the kinds of solutions—ones that ben­efit both nat­ural and human systems—that the Urban Coastal Sus­tain­ability Ini­tia­tive at North­eastern pri­or­i­tizes. Sim­ilar to the Dutch approach of including many stake­holders in the dis­cus­sion, UCSI bridges sci­ence with policy, and research with imple­men­ta­tion and out­reach. Specif­i­cally, INSHORE (Inter­na­tional Net­work for the Study of Rocky Inter­tidal Ecosys­tems), a group co-​​founded by our lab group, con­nects and col­lab­o­rates glob­ally with sus­tain­ability researchers in other coastal cities. This trip built new con­nec­tions in Florida, Louisiana, New York City, the West Coast and of course, in the Netherlands.

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Sunset canal boat ride in Amsterdam