Blue Paper #9: Water & heritage - reflections from a water manager

Maarten Ouboter

You might associate the word “heritage” with old objects that need to be preserved at high cost. Geohydrochemist and water asset manager Maarten Ouboter (Waterschap Amstel, Gooi en Vecht, the Netherlands) presents a different image. In this blog, he shares his observations on the Dutch water system. He argues that heritage is everywhere, and that it is crucial to understand our current systems, customs and mistakes in order to come up with solutions for the water related challenges that await us.

Blue Papers, Water and Heritage, Water Heritage

Water systems play the same role to landscapes as the blood circulation does to a human body. In the Netherlands, the landscape we inherited is the result of human adjustments to the natural environment. We adjusted this natural body so extensively, that some believe it is mainly anthropogenic. Of course, this is an overestimation of our own influence. We still live in a delta, connecting a river catchment to the sea. We haven’t quite improved our situation: our living delta lies largely under sea level and we have been polluting rivers, deltas and the sea to a large extent. Importantly, the climate induces the blood stream in our landscape body, and climate change runs us from one extreme to the other: storms make sea levels fluctuate strongly, rain fills the rivers and occasionally drowns the land, droughts desiccate our living environment and makes our so called ‘wet land’ cry for thirst. Last, and certainly not least, the sea level will rise. Within a century, we expect eb tide levels to be higher than the street level in Amsterdam.

The organization I work for, the regional public water authority of Amstel, Gooi and Vecht, represents the fourth (and oldest) level of democracy in the Netherlands. Next to the national, the provincial and the municipal level, water authorities in the Netherlands have the task of flood protection, water level management and water quality management. Elected boards account for the investment of tax money, choosing solutions for water issues.

A good example is shown by the history of water management in the low-lying Western part of the Netherlands. Local disputes were about water levels: lower water levels draining the land and making it fertile, higher water levels protecting buildings from collapsing and preventing land to further subside. The big issues in the past were (and in the future this will not be any different) on the downstream transport of water surplus, the availability of upstream water during droughts, and the water quality in our living environment.

Nowadays, water boards are dealing with challenges on different scales: choosing optimal water structures, reducing risks, negotiating different interests, creating opportunities of the water cycle, and traditionally less popular: maintenance of existing water structures.

From my point of view, working in the field of water and landscape, a couple observations on heritage jump to mind:

Heritage is everywhere
‘Heritage’ is not an isolated object or set of objects. It is everywhere. Not only in buildings, such as pumping stations, treatment plants, and offices, but in every slope in a street, width of a ditch in agricultural land, the form of blocks in a city, of fields outside cities, their elevation, et cetera.

Past – Present - Future
The landscape we see is the result of natural processes forming the landscape in the past, and changes resulting from choices to shape the landscape and its elements. If the landscape is like a detailed drawing, the present is like a pencil working on this drawing. Our choices are essential with regard to future challenges, set by climate change and the growing pressure of land use. The result of the drawing should be a balance between People, Planet (a sustainable living environment for people, animals and plants), Profit (a healthy society) and Place (a clear spatial context).

I observe that effectively, changes are economy driven and opportunistic, short term. Water is often seen as unused space. We see this in plans for the IJmeer (a lake close to Amsterdam, part of the former Zuiderzee) developing a new city in the lake. Fact is that the existing lake is a valuable part of the water system. It is a fresh water reservoir in times of drought. In the future, the lake might well be an essential connection between the river Rhine and the North sea, with its raising level.  

A lot of what we see in our low-lying delta is the result of maintenance. Maintenance is often considered to be less sexy, when compared to development projects. I am lucky enough to be writing this blog in the Italian mountains, where we follow a long-distance trail through Piemonte and Liguria. In this landscape, the long history of land use in a ‘natural’ mountain range scenery is eminent. In many places, nature shows that it will take over when maintenance stops. The balance between the process of a constant decay of objects, or in a different perspective: development of (taking over by) nature on one side and maintenance on the other, determines our delta landscape. Without maintenance, Amsterdam would be like Venice: with the surrounding polders as the Venice lagoon, and Amsterdam as the originally elevated, though sinking island, occasionally overflown at high tide.   

Water infrastructures – even those that are considered as heritage - are functional. An example for this is the Amsterdam canal that still exists under the Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam, with the 1488 Waag in its center. We can see traces of maintenance showing changes in 1613, and a rebuilt part of the canal wall using concrete in 1980. This overbuilt canal is still present because of its functionality: it transports polder water from the hinterland of Amstelland through the historical city center. If we would forget its functionality, for instance by using the space that we believe is unused, water would reclaim this space, forcing us to recover connections.

Individual heritage objects are of value for society. However, the schemes of objects forming a system give a bigger picture to this value. As a system, heritage reveals stories of the development of the landscape and of human involvement. Storytelling reflects the intangible values of heritage: inspirationally and spiritually. It reflects the identity of inhabitants of the delta. It helps us in making choices, using our pencil in the drawing of and preparing for future challenges.

Value of water
These observations make clear that heritage is not just concerning isolated objects that need large investments of time and money to be preserved. Heritage is what our planet is made of. It tells the story of our ancestors, surviving bravely in a world that supports us and that threatens us (‘the sea giveth, the sea taketh away’), or in Dutch literature: ‘de visch wordt duur betaald’ (‘the fish is paid for dearly’, alluding to the fact that fishing took many human lives).

We can only survive if we learn from our past. Our living environment is our capital. It brings us further, but only if we choose what to maintain wisely. Occasionally it will bring us an immense challenge, much bigger than the preservation of heritage alone. The Amsterdam quay walls are an example. They need a major impulse to, literally, support the future of the city of Amsterdam. And they teach us a lesson: we have to invest in our current living environment rather than on economic opportunities that will put our living environment under further stress.

The Dutch water boards are a very valuable aspect of water related heritage in the Netherlands. They give a political voice to the water itself. With their connection to society, they have the means and the responsibility for an optimal use of tax money directly connected to water issues, and therefore to safeguard, and if necessary, create, the objects, stories and systems that make us value water and keeping our living environment on track under the pressure of climate change and more intensive land use.

The Blue Papers is a series of thought-provoking short essays on water. Authors have been invited by the platform Water Values: Connecting Past, Present & Future, an initiative of ICOMOS-NL, TU Delft and University of Groningen to argue the importance of heritage and a cultural approach within water related challenges. This paper is written by Maarten Ouboter, a geohydrochemist working as an asset manager, connecting system analyses to investments, for the regional public water authority Amstel, Gooi and Vecht in the greater Amsterdam area in the low-lying Western part of the Netherlands. The papers were edited by PCF’s Carola Hein and Hilde Sennema.