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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Holland Lets the Water Back In

Air Date: Week of

Steven Beard reports from the Netherlands on a plan by the Dutch government to turn off the windmills and allow several hundred thousand acres of reclaimed land to return to its natural state. The Master Plan for Nature is supposed to help preserve the country's endangered species and reduce its agricultural surplus, but many farmers see the Plan as an ill-conceived threat to their heritage and way of life.


CURWOOD: Holding back the sea with dikes and using windmills to pump marshlands dry has been a national obsession in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. That's not surprising, since half of Holland's territory is below sea level. But now, spurred on by environmental and budget concerns, the Dutch Government has made a dramatic decision: they plan to turn off some of the windmills and let the waters back in. As Stephen Beard reports, not everybody is happy at that prospect.

(Sound of windmill sails)

BEARD: With its four giant sails flailing in the wind, a traditional Dutch windmill is at work in a polder, an area reclaimed from an inland lake. This polder a few kilometers south of Amsterdam is called the Ronde Vanaan.

(Sound of windmill in operation)

BEARD: Inside the mill, Peter Beselt watches over the great clunking wooden wheels and gears. Now retired, he donates his time to keep the mill in working order, indulging a passion many country-people in Holland well understand.

BESELT: Working with wind, now it's a very easy day, no clouds, very sunny, a good wind, it's easy to work with the mill.

BEARD: Electric machines have replaced most of the old windmills of Holland, but more than a thousand are still dotted about the low, flat terrain. A few of them, like this one, still do the job they've been doing for centuries.

BESELT: It pumps the water out of the polder. This mill is pumping the polder for 300 years already.

(Sound of pumping)

BEARD: Like the story of Hans Brinker, the boy who plugged a hole in the dike with his finger, the windmill is a symbol of this country's unceasing struggle against water. Hundreds of thousands of acres have been reclaimed from the sea, and from lakes, swamps and marshes -- they've been turned into cities and fertile plains, creating not just an orderly landscape but a national character too, as environmentalist Ronald van de Geesson explains.

VAN DE GEESSON: It's the battle which has made us into the people which we are, and into the country which we are. Keeping those pumps working and keeping the land below sea level dry requires a tremendous effort of money but also of social understanding. If you're living in a community which depends on pumps, you cannot have that somebody forsakes his duty to maintain the pumps, or doesn't maintain the dikes, because they have to be maintained. The Dutch people have sort of, over the centuries, developed what is a very much consensus-oriented people.

(Sound of city traffic)

BEARD: But that consensus is under pressure. The Dutch are quarreling. The source of the conflict: ironically, the very enterprise that's held them together over the centuries -- pumping water. Under a policy grandiosely entitled "The Master Plan for Nature," the national government has proposed the unthinkable, to stop some of the pumps and let the water overflow some of the land. Seventeen feet below sea level, one of the lowest points in the Netherlands, the Ronde Vanaan is one of the polders earmarked for flooding. Here in Utrecht, the provincial government minister responsible for the plan is Thea Portiner. She says relentless draining of the land, especially in the Ronde Vanaan, has been harming the environment.

PORTINER: We pump there for about 18 hours out of 24, the water from other parts of our province is coming to this lowest part, then we are, keep on pumping of water, and the rest of our province gets drier and drier, the whole country and our province will actually get so dry that all the trees will die and there will, nothing will bloom anymore.

BEARD: A great deal of damage has already been done, according to Jan Gorter of the environmental group Natur Monumentum.

GORTER: Very, very many species are seriously threatened. For instance, most of our Dutch butterflies have disappeared. The otter has disappeared, and Holland has no otter left. Orchids, birds of prey -- well, I can continue and continue. Very many species threatened or died out. We need more water, we've pumped it all away.

BEARD: The lack of water coincides with another crisis: the urgent need to cut Holland's huge agricultural surpluses. The "Master Plan for Nature" is designed to tackle both problems. Over the next three decades, more than half a million acres of low-yielding farmland -- about ten percent of the total -- will be brought up and taken out of production. Drainage will cease. The water will be allowed to seep in. Groups like Natur Monumentum will manage the resulting wetlands. Spokesman Ronald van de Geesson is calling on his fellow countrymen to rise to the challenge.

VAN DE GEESSON: Let's turn in history back, let's do as if we are Hans Brinkers reversed, we'll pull our finger out of the dike, symbolically of course, and turn this land back to what it was, into nature again. So we say, okay, fine, we have no business here anymore, by our land, we'll put the water levels up again, and we'll have thriving marshes full of waterfowl, full of springbills, of herons, of storks, of ducks, of coots, of -- well, every imaginable species of waterfowl will return here. So it will develop into the finest reserve with no equal in the world.

(Sound of dairy cows mooing)

BEARD: But the farmers in the Ronde Vanaan do not share that vision. On his small dairy farm, which he claims makes a reasonable living, this old man is scornful about the "Master Plan for Nature."

FARMER/TRANSLATOR: Pure nonsense, he says. It makes no sense, he says, because at first people make this land dry and now they're going to pump water again, it makes no sense.

BEARD: Many other farmers feel the same. A quarter of the 800 residents of the Ronde Vanaan are crammed into the committee room here in the Vinkeveen Town Hall. In Holland, this passes for a protest meeting. But the mild-mannered, jokey atmosphere should not mislead. Everyone here says they're utterly determined not to sell up and let the water in. Generous compensation from the government is on offer, but, says Fred Minken of the Polder Action Group, there's more than money at stake for most of the inhabitants.

MINKEN: Well, it's a fact that they actually helped build this polder, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this polder, it is actually against Dutch nature and Dutch character to do this sort of thing. We are a nation of people who have for ages reclaimed land, either from the sea or from lakes and to just open up the dikes again and let the water run in would mean destroying capital, would mean destroying culture, it means destroying people, and that is what we are against.

(Traffic sound)

BEARD: Fifty miles away, in The Hague, the seat of national government, Dsinginsz Gabor, Minister for the Environment, is staunchly defending his master plan. Talk of tradition and culture is ridiculous, he says. He's not trying to turn the clock back three hundred years and flood half the country. He's simply trying to reclaim for nature some of the land lost to agriculture in recent years.

GABOR: Let me point out that in the last 30 years, we lose about 300,000 hectares of area from nature in favor of agriculture. So we have taken away a lot of land from nature and now we try to give it back.

BEARD: True to the Dutch tradition of consensus, no farmer will be forced to part with his land. The government believes that over the years, it will be able to persuade them all to sell up. But the very idea of flooding land is meeting resistance. Like the ditches and canals that criss-cross this country, the culture of keeping the water out is well-entrenched. In the old windmill in the Ronde Vanaan, Peter Beselt rejects the Master Plan for Nature.

BESELT: I'm not happy with it.
BEARD: Why not?
BESELT: I like the farmers and not the official persons who do this, or want to do this. They live in The Hague, they are writing behind their desks, and doesn't know the land here, the life and the land here.

(Sound of mill grinding to a halt)

BEARD: For Living on Earth, this is Stephen Beard in the Ronde Vanaan, Holland.



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