On January 30th, 2023, a small basalt pillar was placed on Plein 1953, a square in one of the post-war neighborhoods of Rotterdam. The pillar is meant to commemorate the devastating flood in the southwest of the Netherlands, which followed a storm surge in the early hours of February 1st, 1953. The location is meaningful for several reasons. The streets in this neighborhood, which was reaching completion around the time of the flood disaster of February 1st, 1953, were named after villages most heavily affected by the storm surge. It stands near a pond with an artwork by Annemarie Theunissen, which was placed in 2012 to commemorate the 1953 disaster as well. This group of corten steel silhouettes signifies the togetherness that is necessary to live with water: “together we can conquer the storm surge, together we might even be able to walk on water” (Van der Krogt, 2016). The new basalt pillar refers to the material that was dominant for fortifying dikes around the time of the disaster, and is part of a series indicating places where the dikes broke.
Fig. 1 The basalt pillar in Pendrecht, placed on January 30, 2023, with the 2012 monument in the background. Photo by Freek van Kilsdonk.
The placement of yet another monument in a place where the disaster did not actually hit, shows the national, international and maybe even universal nature of the disaster of 1953. Immediately after the news of the flooding reached the other parts of the Netherlands, blankets and sandbags were collected. Donations to the national disaster fund came in from all over the country, under slogans like “Beurzen open, dijken dicht” [‘Open your wallets, close the dikes’] and “Mouwen omhoog, ons land moet droog” [‘Roll up your sleeves, keep our country dry’] (Tubantia 1953). Support also came from abroad, illustrating a transnational solidarity from areas that were affected by water as well. The municipality of Middelharnis-Sommelsdijk for instance received support from Italy, and returned the favor in 1956 when the Po river flooded (Tubantia 1956).
Fig. 2 People seeking refuge on roofs, one of the iconic images of the 1953 disaster, was used in a charity campaign on Curaçao. National Archives of the Netherlands, CC0.
The disaster made painfully clear how vulnerable the Netherlands was, its territory lying underneath sea level for a large part. The plea for better storm surge protection had already been made two decades earlier when Johan van Veen, a civil servant of the Dutch water authority Rijkswaterstaat, warned in anonymous op-eds about the insufficiency of the dike system. The State did make plans for more comprehensive flood protection, but - partly due to the Great Depression, the subsequent Second World War and reconstruction austerity - never executed them. The national commission to execute a plan for the Delta was only installed on February 21, 1953. It kickstarted the famous water protection plan known as the Delta Works: a series of dams, dikes, sluices, and other interventions built between 1954 and 1997 to protect a large part of the Netherlands in the low-lying delta from flooding.
The execution of the Delta Works lasted several decades. This engineering feat received international acclaim and was called a “modern world wonder” on several occasions, for example by the American journalist Ernest O. Hauser in 1959 (Rotterdams Parool, 1959), and by the German journalist Martin Bernstog in 1971 (NRC Handelsblad, 1971). In 1997, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) chose the plan for the Delta Works as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, illustrating “...modern society’s ability to achieve unachievable feats, reach unreachable heights, and scorn the notion ‘it can’t be done’.” The shared sense of urgency that led to the national plan to build the Delta Works, moreover, added an expression to the Dutch language; to argue for a “Deltaplan'' now is to indicate a crisis where a comprehensive, state-led approach is necessary.
This engineering approach of the Delta Works focused on keeping the water out by closing off the main inlets in the Dutch delta. Over the years, however, this became a point of contention. The Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, for example, was often delayed due to protests (De Schipper, 2008). Both the fishing industry and environmental organizations argued that cutting off the Eastern Scheldt from the sea would be detrimental to the local salt-water ecosystem. Ideas to keep the Eastern Scheldt open consequently raised protest. The final construction, finished in 1986, allowed salt water to come in, and would only close off when water levels were expected to exceed 3 meters. This compromise was very expensive: estimates of the cost range between 2.5 and 8 billion guilders (ca. 2 and 7 billion euros in 2022), raising the question whether the costs actually outweighed the social and ecological benefits (Bijker, 2002; Sennema, 2020).
Fig. 3 A fisherman in front of the Eastern Scheldt Barrier around the time of completion. Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, National Archives of the Netherlands, CC0.
The Delta Works relied heavily on a mindset of protection through the dominance of nature, using metaphors like a battle against water. This is illustrated in a poem that was placed on the Eastern Scheldt Barrier:
Hier gaan over het tij / De maan, de wind en wij
In control over the tide / are the moon, the wind, and us
While this mindset allowed large numbers of people to live in high-density cities located in low-lying deltas, it has become increasingly clear that these engineering structures often have adverse effects on social and ecological systems. During the remembrance of the 1953 flood in 2023, media reports emphasized the present-day vulnerability of the Dutch delta, especially in times of climate change, changing water patterns, and expected sea level rise. New insights, like sand plates in front of the coast and salt marshes, are now considered to be important additions to the current protection system (NWO, 2021). Notably, these insights often have their roots in centuries-old practices, as the research project “Living Dikes” shows (Schepers & Borsje, 2021).
The social and cultural impacts of natural disasters on communities is another topic that has gained attention over the last two decades. The devastating effects of tsunamis in South-East Asia and Japan in 2004 and 2012 (Littlejohn and Hein, 2021), and hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in 2005 (Smith, 2006), illustrated that the effects of a natural disaster cannot always be mitigated by technological solutions. The word “resilience” has subsequently also been scrutinized as a buzzword that deflected responsibility from policy failures and institutional inertia (see for example Olssen et al., 2015; Yarina, 2018).
In addition to identifying “wicked problems” and thinking of solutions, it is important to recognize the value of water-related practices and artifacts that can help think about more sustainable futures. Language, but also art and images, play a crucial role in imagining these futures. The monuments in Rotterdam illustrate this: citizens are not only still connected to the tragedy of a water disaster from many years ago, but are also aware of current vulnerabilities. Despite this growing awareness, it is important to recognize that local groups do not always have the rights or the voice to actively participate (see Boelens, 2021). Remembering - not only the tragedy of a natural disaster, but also of human failure - allows us to reflect on the complexity of disaster and aftermath. Ideally, it subsequently activates governments and citizens alike to think of more sustainable ways of preventing and mitigating the inevitable storm surges of the future.
This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Carola Hein, Foteini Tsigoni and Vincent Baptist.
Do you want to understand your own water system better? Take our Open Online Course Water Works: Activating Heritage for Sustainable Development.
Bijker, Wiebe E. 2002. “The Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier: A Test Case for Dutch Water Technology, Management, and Politics.” Technology and Culture 43 (3): 569–84. https://doi.org/10.1353/tech.2002.0104.
Boelens, Rutgerd. 2021. “Blue Paper #7: “Riverhood” and the politics of (mis)recognizing local water cultures and water rights systems”. PortCityFutures Blog. Accessed February 2, 2023. https://www.portcityfutures.nl/news/blue-paper-7-riverhood-and-the-politics-of-misrecognizing-local-water-cultures-and-water
Krogt, René van der. 2016. “Rotterdam - Silhouetten.” 2016. Accessed February 2, 2023. https://standbeelden.vanderkrogt.net/object.php?record=ZH58kv.
Littlejohn, Andrew, and Carola Hein. 2021. “When Power Flows into the Sea: The Aftermath of the ‘3.11’ Nuclear Disaster.” PortCityFutures Blog. Accessed February 2, 2023. https://www.portcityfutures.nl/news/when-power-flows-into-the-sea-the-aftermath-of-the-311-nuclear-disaster.
NRC Handelsblad. 1971. “Deltawerken: Wereldwonder,” April 20, 1971.
NWO. 2021. “Research into ‘Living Dikes’ that Grow with the Rising Sea Level.” Accessed February 2, 2023. https://www.nwo.nl/en/news/research-living-dikes-grow-rising-sea-level.
Olsson, Lennart, Anne Jerneck, Henrik Thoren, Johannes Persson, and David O’Byrne. 2015. “Why Resilience Is Unappealing to Social Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations of the Scientific Use of Resilience.” Science Advances 1 (4). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1400217.
Rotterdamsch Parool. 1959. “Nederlanders Bouwen Een Nieuw Wereldwonder,” February 26, 1959.
Schepers, Mans, and Bas Borsje. 2021. “Living Dikes voor de ‘Erfvijand van Eeuwen’: Groningers en de Kust in een Diachroon Perspectief.” Groniek 228/229 (December). https://doi.org/10.21827/groniek.228/229.40167.
Schipper, Paul de. 2008. De Slag om de Oosterschelde: Een Reconstructie van de Strijd om de Open Oosterschelde. Amsterdam: Atlas.
Sennema, Hilde. 2020. “De inflatie van het Deltaplan,” Financieele Dagblad, February 23, 2020. https://fd.nl/opinie/1335552/de-inflatie-van-het-deltaplan.
Smith, Neil. 2006. “There’s No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster.” Items (blog). Accessed February 2, 2023. https://items.ssrc.org/understanding-katrina/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-natural-disaster/.
Tubantia. 1953. “Voor het Nationaal Rampenfonds.” Twentsch dagblad Tubantia, April 4, 1953, p. 2. https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=MMHCO02:163744013:mpeg21:p00002.
Tubantia. 1956. “Middelharnis helpt Italië.” Twentsch dagblad Tubantia, February 21, 1956, p. 2. https://resolver.kb.nl/resolve?urn=MMHCO02:163755044:mpeg21:p00002.
Yarina, Lizzie. 2018. “Your Sea Wall Won’t Save You.” Places Journal, March 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/180327.