Column: Message from the Mainland30 November 2009 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
It all began with images of the Cumbria floods. They made me want to explain how the Dutch deal with their surplus of water. In other words: a brief guide to the Dutch system for foreigners.
At the first sign of high winds, the Dutch react swiftly and order ‘Limited Dyke Watch’. This conjures up a picture of three strong tall Dutchmen protected by their southwesters taking shelter in a hut on a deserted dyke.
They don’t talk but they do know that a bottle of Dutch gin is within reach on the table.
They are men with weather-beaten faces who could have modelled as The Potato Eaters for Van Gogh. The storm batters the shelter and the ceiling light sways to and fro with each gust. The wrath of God lashes down upon the land.
Each country has its own concept of what it considers it to be cosy surroundings. In Germany for example this is expressed by the rustic local pub with its ‘Stammtisch’, complete with a bar girl in a low-cut dress carrying eight pints all at once.
Cosiness in The Netherlands is very much associated with being in it together. We’re sitting cosily together in a hut on a dyke encouraged by the fact that three other people on the next dyke are also making the best of the same trying situation.
Limited Dyke Watch is a gift to the ordinary family man. You don’t even have to be near the sea, Dutch rivers have dykes too. The requirements differ: river dykes are likely to be flooded not more than once every 1250 years but sea dykes are supposed to be flooded only once every 10,000 years.
However, we can’t take risks and so the family man is kept busy.
It’s on TV: ‘Boys come quickly; they’re showing the latest on Limited Dyke Watch!’ Limited Dyke Watch can at any moment become Comprehensive Dyke Watch which, in case of an impending disaster, actually patrols the dykes. At this point TV crews provide blanket coverage.
Apart from Dyke Watchmen, there are also Head Dyke Watchmen, Ward Dyke Watchmen and District Dyke Watchmen. The man at the top of this hierarchical structure is the Flood Czar. Oh yes, keeping back the water gives you access to a proper title.
I assume that in certain parts of England it is cheaper to have floods, say every one hundred years or so, compared with building dykes everywhere just in case. The latter is actually what we do in The Netherlands. We have to; the country is too densely populated and when sea levels rise we simply have to pump more water out.
The Netherlands has run out of space to such an extent that we have had to place roads onto dykes. Actually the reverse is true: most roads also function as dykes. This creates the typical Dutch landscape: marvellous cloud formations over a pattern made by dykes and rivers.
The Dutch poet Hendrik Marsman portrayed this in his well-known poem, Thinking of Holland
Thinking of Holland
Yet these rivers pose the greatest threat. You could think of The Netherlands as one gigantic bathtub, which despite all draining exercises threatens to fill itself at regular intervals.
On the 31 January 1995 there was such an occasion, within days 250,000 people were evacuated from the area enclosed by the rivers Rhine, Maas and Waal because several dykes were on the brink of collapse. This was a truly cosy moment for us, which meant we cooked our traditional pea soup and were glued to the TV!
Of course action was taken and the dykes were duly raised because let's not forget the requirement is to have only one flood in every 1250 years.
After Al Gore showed maps on which half of The Netherlands is under water, a new committee was installed immediately with the aim to create a new Delta Plan (project plan to prevent flooding).
Rather aptly this committee was named after its chairman Veerman, which means ferry-man in Dutch.
The Dutch government has ring-fenced 1 to 1.5 billion Euros a year until 2100 in order to fight the battle against surplus water.
Ever since he came of age, Crown Prince Willem Alexander has held the title of National Water Manager. He is a good guy but I doubt that he would have qualified for Flood Czar had he been a commoner.
I can imagine him entering a meeting in the UN office in New York. Joining him there are three professors, two of whom are Nobel laureates. They are the experts in the battle against rising sea levels; nonetheless this will not restrain our Crown Prince from explaining to them all he has learned about water management.
Last year he had an extra heavy workload because of his involvement with ‘National Sanitation Year’ also known as ‘National Toilet Year’.
Even though I enjoy taking long showers, I wouldn’t like to think that this enables me to call myself a water management expert. That would be the same as suggesting that by joining a Hell’s Angels meeting, I would be qualified to discuss the ins and outs of motorbikes.
In addition to his commitments to water matters, the Crown Prince is also on the board of the National Bank of The Netherlands. I wouldn’t do this if it was my mother’s head on the coins and hopefully this won't create a negative effect on the credit crises.
But suddenly it all makes sense, I can picture it: a wealthy prince serves his country by putting his finger in the dyke.
*Translation by Paul Vincent
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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