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Going against the flow of history
February 24, 2013 11:39 PM   Subscribe

As you know Bob, the Dutch have long known how to deal with the threat of flooding, living in a country that was largely conquered from the sea. Over the centuries the Netherlands has learned to put its trust in bigger and higher dykes, dams and various increasingly clever solutions to keep the sea where it's wanted and away from where it would be a nuisance. There's a new threat however, that can't be solved with higher dykes, a threat that needs to accomodated by doing something very un-Dutch: reflood parts of the Netherlands.

The problem is simple: shifting climate patterns in Northern and Central Europe has meant warmer, wetter winters, more rain and hence more water in rivers like the Rhine which makes them increasingly likely to burst their banks. As the Netherlands is basically a massive floodplain with not just the Rhine, but also the Meuse and Schelde draining into it, it is particularly prone to such floodings.

Just building bigger dykes isn't sufficient, so the Dutch water management department, Rijkswaterstaat, has started a programme to provide more room for rivers to flood safely.

What kind of measures this would entail can be seen in this handy infographic.

According to The New York Times this programme is something America could do well to learn from in the way the Dutch government has made difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions and stuck to them.
posted by MartinWisse (31 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a trend of where things are headed. As global warming increases the amount of extreme flooding (and drought), it will require more centralized control. In the USA the Army Corp of Engineers will probably become ever more powerful. I think it was Jared Diamond who said the reason China has historically a strong central government was the need to control the rivers, it's a country run by water engineers. Maybe the same could be said for some lowland European countries.
posted by stbalbach at 12:10 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wouldn't trust Jared Diamond as far as I could throw him, and that sounds remarkable like one of the things people who don't actually know Chinese history like to say. Certainly water enginering doesn't need strong central control: here in the Netherlands it was historically under local control and the waterschappen are our oldest democractic institutions.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:28 AM on February 25, 2013 [6 favorites]


A list of all the things that the US could learn from the Dutch but absolutely, belligerently refuses to would make for an interesting, and probably long, post.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:43 AM on February 25, 2013 [27 favorites]


Those who believe that the Netherlands is entirely greenhouses dykes and neatly manicured pastures should read this article about the the Oostvaardersplassen - a large expanse of "spare" polder land which has remained wild and un-drained for the last 40 years. They should also talk to Desiree Versteeg who came face to face with a wolf near Arnheim in 2011.
posted by rongorongo at 2:33 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


A list of all the things that the US could learn from the Dutch but absolutely, belligerently refuses to would make for an interesting, and probably long, post.

Also interesting would be a post about the places where we're already doing stuff like this, albeit on a smaller scale. For instance, the Charles River Natural Valley Storage Area was specifically created in the 1970s to provide over 8,000 acres of wetlands upstream of Boston to absorb floodwaters, and it's been largely successful.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 2:45 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Using flooding as a primary explanation for a centralized state persisting in China isn't crazy exactly, at least not more than picking out any other other single factor would be. Emperor Yu, posthumous founder of China's first hereditary dynasty (Xia), was given his position as a result of his successful completion of a system of flood controls.

A lot has happened since since 2200 BCE, but it was a country run by a water engineer back then anyway if you believe the story.
posted by Winnemac at 3:24 AM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


'Great Yu Controls the Waters' is a rousing tale.
posted by ovvl at 4:23 AM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


SIDESHOW BOB: Cecil, no civilization in history has ever considered Chief Hydrological Engineer a calling.

CECIL: (clears throat)

SIDESHOW: Yes, yes, the Cappadocians Ancient Chinese and the Dutch, fine.
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:25 AM on February 25, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm sure that this is a double, but I guess not.
posted by wilful at 4:46 AM on February 25, 2013


OK, I really want to know this: in what area of policy or governance is the Netherlands a miserable failure? This place is just too good to be true.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:06 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also interesting would be a post about the places where we're already doing stuff like this, albeit on a smaller scale.

I'm wondering if it's even on that much of a smaller scale; take this spillway (used in 2011) or this controlled levee breach. Maybe it's less of a matter of "America needs to learn about this" as "the NYT needs to start paying more attention to flyover country."
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:16 AM on February 25, 2013


OK, I really want to know this: in what area of policy or governance is the Netherlands a miserable failure? This place is just too good to be true.

Integrating non-European immigrants into Dutch society as a whole. I don't know about 'miserable failure' and I think we ok by European standards but on the other hand it's not something we can point to and be super proud of either.
posted by atrazine at 5:24 AM on February 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


There's a new threat however, that can't be solved with higher dykes, a threat that needs to accomodated by doing something very un-Dutch:

At first, I thought this post was going to be about a different type of flood...
posted by sour cream at 5:32 AM on February 25, 2013


Dike and dyke are not just different spellings for the same word.
posted by localroger at 5:46 AM on February 25, 2013


Also, pole supported buildings exposing the ground level should be substituted wherever there is flooding, especially if the previous structure was destroyed.
posted by Brian B. at 6:48 AM on February 25, 2013


Integrating non-European immigrants into Dutch society as a whole.

This seems like more of a societal failure than a government failure. But give it some time. What country is spotless in this regard? The US has a way-less-than-stellar record of integrating any number of successive waves of immigrants. (Post-appropriate watery metaphor intended.)
posted by beagle at 6:57 AM on February 25, 2013


The US has a way-less-than-stellar record of integrating any number of successive waves of immigrants.

There are differences in degree that are so severe they can't be ignored. European countries in general and France in particular, have done a very, very poor job of this. (NL, not as much.)
posted by ocschwar at 7:17 AM on February 25, 2013


Dike and dyke are not just different spellings for the same word.

I couldn't sleep and I went to the American Tire Company to see if they could help. They looked at me like I was high.
posted by Talez at 7:29 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


I remember the HBO biography of HW Bush ended with coverage of the repeated destruction of his ocean front home that he has repeatedly resisted moving (in the end after multiple write-offs I think he moved it back a bit). If a former president is willing to be all honey badger stupid about his view, exposing himself, his family, staff and security detail to the risks of repeated severe flooding then how in the hell can you expect reasonable flood policy for the rest of the country?
posted by srboisvert at 8:05 AM on February 25, 2013


Dike and dyke are not just different spellings for the same word.

They were in the seventeenth century (spelling being a matter of taste). I still have no idea how the other meaning of "dyke" emerged.

Actually, in the Cambridgeshire fens, dike often meant ditch, not bank, so a dike was the waterway, not the flood prevention. Which is not confusing at all /hamburger.

As for the plan: it's an awesome idea. Trying to keep out floods is always a fight; relieving the pressure is a much better idea - allow one area to flood to protect others. The washes in central Cambridgeshire act like this: a large area between two rivers that is purposely allowed to flood every year so that the pressure on the banks isn't too great.
posted by jb at 8:53 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Dike and dyke are not just different spellings for the same word.

The OED says they are.
posted by RogerB at 8:55 AM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


more on the Ouse washes in Cambridgeshire.
posted by jb at 8:58 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


No one tell localroger what the Dutch word for "gay" is.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:08 AM on February 25, 2013


You mean the slang version appropriated by a certain recently ressurrected online photo sharing service?

Hint: not instagram.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:37 AM on February 25, 2013


Everyone knows Instagram is the anglicised German name for weight gain powder.
posted by Talez at 9:52 AM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was not expecting to spend my evening trying to make Dutch semi-homonyms for website names. But here it is, an hour later, and I need to put the dictionary down before I lose the whole night.
posted by frimble at 10:26 AM on February 25, 2013


>Certainly water enginering doesn't need strong central control

No, but China and other countries have a long history of it. By facilitating canals and irrigation, agriculture could be extended into previously unsuitable lands thus effectively expanding the empire (and tax base) without the need for military conquest. It also allowed for transportation networks and trade over long distances, further increasing the wealth and prosperity of the state. These large-scale public works projects required large capital investments and a bureaucracy that only a strong central state could provide (or allowed for). The effect on China was profound and there is no debate about the importance of water engineering on the development of China. There is debate if this was a *single cause* of China's despotic rulers, which of course is ridiculous. There's so much written on this topic, but for example read pages 306-307. For a more recent example see Engineering the State: The Huai River and Reconstruction in Nationalist China, 1927-1937. There are more recent books about how the current Chinese government is mostly a bunch of engineers. "China today is ruled by Red engineers."

As for the Netherlands, sure there can be democratic models for public works projects. We have them in the USA also. I live on a floodplain, the water when it floods comes to within feet of my house. It's controlled by a dam upstream and the land and water are controlled by a non-profit institution run by a board elected by the community. It's not small, it's the main water source for about 2 million people in the suburbs of Washington DC and Baltimore.
posted by stbalbach at 12:28 PM on February 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


The thing with this 'strong Dutch central government' is that it's not, if you read it it's 'the farmers organized, the government wanted to help the farmers, the farmers came up with an idea, the government was happy to fund it' - the difference with UK & USA politics is, here it's all about having a fight about issues that don't matter except emotionally (gay marriage and making adoption easier, or the economy?) and is deliberately divisive, and you get lying governments (privatised the NHS) who are woefully inept and would rather do anything than cooperate, because it's all about the ego and nothing about achieving practical solutions. What makes Holland great is, every damn square inch is hugely productive - food, engineering, design, transport... They think 'what can i do?' and they do it. I knew a guy worked on the tulip fields, when a field was infected every so often some machine would turn up, suck up all the soil for several metres deep, take it away, sterilise it, bring it back... In the Zuider Zee museum, the display on the (1920s? or a bit earlier?) famine went 'the government decided forming the farmers into cooperative groups to increase bargaining power would be most effective' - in the UK they'd have been like 'reds! terrorism!'. I wish Holland would invade the UK and run it for a few years. Admittedly their immigration policies are racist, and their louts are aggressive and scary, but we have all that anyway.
posted by maiamaia at 4:13 PM on February 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


@StBalbach that's fascinating. The USA has so many small local examples of true democracy and independence that you never hear about, it's always Goldman Sachs screwing some town over, or Enron, that kind of thing you hear about, or Burning Man or some hippies, but this real practical everyday independence and freedom isn't noisy or tragic so it passes unnoticed but it's the most interesting and useful to know.
posted by maiamaia at 4:16 PM on February 25, 2013


I wish Holland would invade the UK and run it for a few years.

We're so good at PR in Holland that the last time we invaded and put a Dutch king on the throne the English called it the Glorious Revolution.
posted by atrazine at 2:59 AM on February 26, 2013 [7 favorites]


Just to add to our silly spelling discussion: I was reading Purseglove's Taming the Flood (1988 book on British rivers and wetlands), and he spells dyke with a y throughout. He definitely means drainage ditches; the book would be a LOT less boring of he were writing about the other kind of dykes.
posted by jb at 6:46 PM on February 28, 2013


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