Water Discovery Lab English


In the Netherlands, we know all too well that water is both a friend and an enemy. Yet most Dutch people take water - dry feet, clean drinking water from the tap - for granted. In this Lab, we explore this paradox. We look to the past, but also to the future. Using four themes, we ask the question: what is our relationship with water and how can we improve it? 

The Dutch water system is smartly managed. Water boards (Waterschappen) keep our feet dry after a thunderstorm, drinking water companies ensure that we can rely on clean water from the tap (fig 1), and Rijkswaterstaat maintains the infrastructure that makes freight transport across rivers, canals and seas possible. We are taught swimming lessons at a young age and we sometimes even take the boat to go to work. Yet we often underestimate how much water is part of our daily lives.

We celebrate the economic value of water, for example during the annual World Port Days. But that is not enough. Climate change makes it necessary to rethink the meaning of water in our lives, and to rethink ways of living with it. 

This pop-up exhibition features the work of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus project PortCityFutures. We are a network of academics from different disciplines focusing on how ports affect society, and how rethinking the relationship with water can bring about a sustainable future for citizens in the Delta. 

Image 1: Children drink water at a drinking fountain on the Veerkade in 1955. Photographer: Cock M. Tholens. Rotterdam City Archives, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.


Who is in charge of water? For centuries, we thought that gods and other beings ruled over seas and rivers. Today we know that we ourselves control water with dikes, dams and pumping stations. But is managing water only about technical interventions? 

What if... water could have a say in the future?

Water follows the laws of nature. It flows from the source to the sea, it is attracted by gravity, and heat or cold makes it evaporate or freeze. Delta people told each other stories to understand how that happened. When the All Saints Flood of 1570 destroyed the village of Saeftinghe, for example, people said that a curse caused it: a mermaid became entangled in a fisherman's nets, after which a merman put a curse on the village (fig 1 map Saeftinghe)

Such tales of sea creatures and river gods occur all over the world (fig 2). 

But the more we have come to understand the workings of tides and water currents, the more we try to regulate and govern water. Consider the water boards alone: these ancient democratic governing bodies are unique in the world. 

Water does not respect borders: the Rhine crosses five countries and the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta is located in South Holland, Zeeland and Belgian Flanders. This can cause hassle, think for example of the conflict between the Netherlands and Belgium over the Westerchelde. Increasingly, international cooperation leads to great things, for example the Sustainable Development Goals (fig. 3) or the Oceans Treaty concluded in March 2023, which should protect the seas from overfishing and pollution. 

Question for children: Can you imagine a creature of water? What would it tell us about what it is like to live in water?

Images Panel 2:


Fig. 2 Neptune, the god of fresh water and the sea, as a statue on the Vismarkt building in Ghent. Kedar Gage via Unsplash.



Who built the Delta? The Rhine and its tributaries shaped the Dutch Delta for millennia. Its rich soil and favorable trade location drew people to this fragile landscape. Originally formed by natural influences, today the Dutch Delta is largely artificial. How can we combine culture and nature in the future?

What if. we as humans took a step back? If we moved with the water and all its life?

In order to inhabit the lowlands of today's Netherlands, humans had to constantly adapt the landscape. The Romans reached the area, but did not find it livable: Pliny the Elder reported that (fig. 1 - QUOTE): 

Twice a day over an immeasurable distance the ocean rises with enormous quantities of water, covering an area eternally disputed by nature, and of which it is unclear whether it belongs to the mainland or to the sea.

Generations of farmers, craftsmen and engineers reclaimed the fertile land by building dikes and sluices (Fig. 2). Because of its geographic location, the Delta was bursting with port cities. Yet the struggle between man and nature continued for centuries. Eventually, Pliny's "enormous amounts of water" led to massive engineering interventions, such as the Delta Works (fig. 3). 

How long can we take measures to hold back water in times of sea level rise and changing weather? If we want to build a million houses, maintain the supply of fresh water and also get rid of excess water, we need smart solutions. 

Then it's not just about smart technologies. To build the Delta of the future, we need to invent new stories that connect a very diverse group of stakeholders in an inclusive way: from the multinationals at the port to the smallest animals living in the New Maas River. (Fig. 4-5) 

Question for children: What would you build in the Delta?


The use of water in the Delta is very diverse. We want clean water to drink and swim in, but we also need water for transportation, industry and sewage. We sometimes think of nature as a luxury, but it is the litmus test for how we are doing as a society. How can we live equitably and inclusively on, beside, and with water?

How can we co-create with each other - and with water?

The water is home to many inhabitants, and humans have depended on fishing for centuries. Until the 1950s, salmon were plentiful in the Rhine and Meuse rivers - think of the "Zalmhaven" in Rotterdam or the salmon auction in Kralingen (Fig 1). Large technological interventions to control the water system, such as barriers or dams, disrupted salmon habitat. Polluting industries along the rivers caused salmon to become extinct in our Delta. 

Over time, protests led to stricter regulations and cleaner water. But the dead salmon in the New Maas River pointed to a much bigger problem: how complicated it is to align different values and interests (Fig. 2). Co-creation is a concept that is increasingly being mentioned in this regard. Here, stakeholders who have direct power are also given a say in their own environment, or in certain plans. 

Even if challenges such as climate change and sea level rise seem daunting, we can exert influence at the local level. This can be done, for example, by measuring water quality ourselves. Citizen science initiatives such as Drinkable Rivers teach Delta residents to measure water purity themselves.

But there are many other ways to experiment with water in your immediate environment. Making space for water in the ground by removing tiles in your yard, for example. Or by playing our Water Values game, which simulates a value discussion. 

Question for children: Think about your backyard or your street: can water easily enter the ground?


The value of water is captured in many stories, images and other aspects of culture in Delta regions such as the Netherlands. Think of the mermaid of Saeftinghe, or the famous Hansje Brinker. Can we imagine new stories and rituals that will help us deal with new water challenges?

What qualities of water are worth celebrating?

The unique relationship of the Dutch with water lives on in many proverbs and sayings: if you look for nails in low water, you can end up from the rain in the drizzle. But the influence of water on language has also become less and less. Did you know that one of the most famous Dutch water stories - the story of Hansje Brinker sticking his finger in the dike to save the village from a flood - was invented by an American writer?

To redefine the relationship between water and culture, we don't have to go back to the days of mermaids and water monsters. We can start by recognizing that water is a system, connected from sea to spring, from cloud to glacier, from the blood flowing through our bodies to our daily cup of coffee. 

We can even use our imagination and creativity to combat biodiversity loss. In Poland, a group of women decided to hold a funeral procession to mourn the disappearance of a river (fig. #). But we can also think of ways to honor the water that brings us life and food, as indigenous groups in Canada (e.g., Anishinaabe) consider water a family member and they see it as their duty to protect and care for water. 

"As I have been taught from my Anishinaabek perspective, nibi, or what we call all different types of water, is central to who we are as Anishinaabek. Water is part of the sacred gifts given by the Creator for people to be able to live on Earth, for which we, as the people, are accountable. Nibi also holds an important space for women: women are responsible for protecting the waters, grounding their role in teachings that are received orally, through ceremony, and in community. This cultural understanding of water means that when water is under threat, our responsibility to nibi is to voice our concerns, and the responsibility of others in our communities is to listen."

more info specific story: https://indigenous.knowhistory.ca/stories/think-piece-world-water-day

New celebrations and cultural icons can help us give meaning to what we have lost, but also to the resilience we have shown over the centuries. 

Question for children: What would your water celebration look like?