Water is Their Frenemy

Review of Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch
Tracy Metz and Maartje van den Heuvel
NAi PubIishers, Rotterdam 2012

It is a pleasure to have in hand this large and generously illustrated volume, the product of a collaboration between Tracy Metz (LF 2007) and Dutch art historian Maartje van den Heuvel. The subject is the relationship of the Dutch people to water since the time of settlement, as they have shaped - and been shaped by - a landscape made out of marshy river delta. For hundreds of years, the Netherlands was the site of an “amphibious culture,” starting with the building of dikes and the early medieval terps, iconic mounded dwellings. Water created the matrix for habitation as well as providing essential transport. Periodic flooding was taken in stride.

Tracy's chapters, with titles like "sweet, salt and saline," "big water" and "catastrophe" intertwine with chapters of images curated by Maartje on themes of "conflict," "pleasure" and "myth". A word on the images: they are superb, ranging from sixteenth and seventeenth century paintings, drawings and maps to contemporary photographs. It is no surprise that they rated a show at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. This is a beautiful and important book.

The Netherlands earlier “amphibious” period eventually led to one that Tracy describes as the “bathtub in reverse: the land is in the tub and the water is sloshing against the rim." This is an apt metaphor for an ever-increasing Dutch reliance on engineering solutions to keep the water at bay. The emphasis on controlling water only intensified after the disastrous North Sea Flood of 1953, which took the lives of 1,800 people and left 100,000 without homes. Successive Dutch governments have had to assure their citizens that this will never recur. With half the land area of Holland below sea level, the Delta Works, a heroic intervention, has made it possible for sixty per cent of the population and seventy per cent of Dutch GDP to occupy a precarious elevation.

This does not come without costs, and they go beyond the never-ending building and maintenance of structures. There are increasing conflicts between the sweet and the salt, with serious worries about adequate supplies of fresh water for drinking and agriculture. The salinization of soils has created a challenge to tulip culture, which requires between 260 (normally) and 3,600 (in dry summers) liters of fresh water per kilogram of bulbs. We learn from Tracy about "fleur- de-mer"—salt tolerant alternatives to traditional tulip cultivation—and "flow food”—featured in the second International Architecture Biennale in 2005. You will meet Miss Mignon, the world’s first “saline spud,” a surprisingly unsalty variety of potato that is being grown in saline soil, irrigated with saltwater, all under a salty Wadden Sea sky.

And then comes the "hot breath of climate change," with a higher sea level, bigger storm surges, and more extreme rainfall events. Climate change presents a physical challenge to the wisdom and even the feasibility of the reverse bathtub approach, at a time when interest has grown in softer strategies to live with, rather than fight water. Tracy has it that the Dutch are “betting on two horses…neither of which can win.” This is an astute, if rather gloomy, observation. Proposals to increase the height of dikes and deploy bigger pumps are made alongside schemes to “make room for the river.” There are also hybrid notions like the sand motor that amount to engineering with nature: dumping 21 million cubic yards of sand off the Delftland coast, to be distributed by nature over a generation, resulting, it is hoped, in 35 hectares of new beach and dunes.

Given their historical overriding concern with safety, I expect the Dutch will continue to raise the rim of the bathtub while they experiment with new relationships with controlled amounts of water within its safe confines. Yes, there will be wet cities, but, if at all possible, not too wet.

Armando Carbonell is chairman of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge. He has taught research seminars at the GSD on climate change, planning, and cities and co-taught the interdisciplinary studio on climate change, water, land development, and adaptation sponsored by the Netherlands Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management. He was a 1993 Loeb Fellow.

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