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A Drowning Country

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

A critical look at the Dutch way of dealing with climate change

Text: Marie Voerman

Image: Lieke van den Belt

Water and the Netherlands go together like Sandy and Danny in Grease. Which means, sort of but not really. Both parties adapt to each other to try and squeeze themselves into a doomed-from-the-start relationship for however long it can last. For decades, the Netherlands has tamed and managed water in a way to keep it as its faithful partner. However, this relationship will most likely end sooner rather than later, and the break-up won’t be pretty.

The Netherlands and water have had a complicated connection from the start. Whilst water is often our greatest love, when we swim in lakes, when we skate on frozen canals, when we fierljep across ditches or when we drink cold tap water on hot days, it is also one of our biggest enemies. For most of us who grew up in the Netherlands or have lived here for a while, the knowledge of living below sea-level and the pride we should take in our ‘battle against water’ are just about shoved down our throats. However, for a country on the brink of drowning, the real and terrifying consequences of the rising sea levels that climate change brings are often not only conveniently downplayed or used to our own advantage, but even facilitated.

Bring on the water works

The setting is the Eurovision song contest, held in Ahoy Rotterdam. For the past four minutes, viewers have been watching the intermission performance of Dutch singer Davina Michelle. In a dramatic break, we see her crossing one of the Delta Works on a motorbike as the water rushes to disastrous heights. Just as it’s about to hit the Delta Works, it stops, and Davina Michelle takes on the power of the water to finish her Sweet Water performance.

Though it is ‘just’ a performance for Eurovision, the implications of the performance ring true far beyond the dramatic staging. In those four minutes, the Netherlands carefully positions itself as both a powerful player in the water-game, whilst simultaneously making sure everyone is aware of the victim position when things go south. We, as a country, proudly tell people about the Delta Works, about the entire province of Flevoland (‘That used to be water, you know!’), about our ice-skating champions and about the Dutch influence in world-wide water-related projects like the Ocean Clean-up. However, when we’re playing the victim-card, we make sure people are aware that over 26% of the country is below sea-level and that it would be, according to the Dutch weather institute, ‘the end of the Dutch Kingdom’ if the sea levels rise. When it comes to our relationship with water, the face of the Dutch Janus thus points in whichever direction is most convenient.

Small country, large consequences

What is often conveniently left out of the conversation altogether, however, is the role the Netherlands plays in the exact thing it ‘wants to prevent’. Conversations about rising sea levels rarely take a critical look inward. When visiting the website of the Dutch government about the causes and consequences of rising sea levels and what we need to do to protect the country, solutions that are discussed are all geared towards doing what we know: the strengthening of existing water infrastructure. But besides being good at keeping water out of the streets of the Netherlands and other countries, there is another thing the Netherlands is exceptionally good at: polluting. The Netherlands is the almighty champion when it comes to the production and exportation of meat. This is not news to Cul readers, Masja Willekens also noted our prime-minister’s pressing remark that though the climate is important, we ‘still need to be able to keep on barbequing’. But the Netherland’s true contribution to global warming is shocking to hear every time. If we look at the data from Dutch Environmental Defence, it’s clear how drastic the impact of the Netherlands is. For such a small country, a lot of land is used to keep animals or farm food for said animals. This causes an incredibly high amount of CO2 emissions, not to mention the added CO2 production that comes with exporting said meat. CO2, of course, is one of the leading ingredients in the recipe for global warming. Dutch companies like Unilever and ‘Royal’ Shell also add fuel to the fire, with Unilever aiding in putting us on the list as Europe’s largest palm oil importer and with Shell granting us the biggest oil harbour in the world. All the while, the leading parties of the Dutch government gladly subsidise these companies, offer them tax cuts and make no move whatsoever to make any changes in policy. Though we have to keep in mind that Dutch Environmental Defence also has an agenda that they’re trying to push, I’d rather see an agenda pushed with less of an ‘end-of-the-world’ outcome than the alternative.

The leading parties of the Dutch government have been in charge for years, listening to the Green party and many citizens complain about the massive contributions of the Netherlands to global warming. However, in this time span they have also skilfully avoided addressing climate protests, brushed off policy plans to increase taxes for polluting companies and invested more in non-green energy. The Dutch government is very aware of its role in climate change and the precarious position of the Netherlands if the sea levels rise. However, in the game of politics that the top parties are playing, climate change is simply not a priority. After all, they’re keeping the big companies happy, keeping the rich wealthy and keeping the water out. And if it really does go wrong, maybe they’ll throw some money towards strengthening the dams. Solid plan, right?

‘Not in my backyard’

Wrong. The disastrous results of climate change have already started and they’re not going to stop any time soon. Floods, wildfires and extreme droughts are already plaguing multiple countries. However, until relatively ‘recently’, this didn’t concern the Netherlands. After all, it wasn’t happening in any country close enough to us or that we were connected to strongly enough. Why should we care about our CO2 levels causing a flood in Thailand? It doesn’t concern ‘our’ people.

When those floods hit Limburg, however, or when the hot temperatures in summer required the Dutch to use less water, talks about climate change suddenly became a hot topic amongst leading parties. But rather than turning to the big companies, stripping big polluters of ‘royal’ statuses, investing in renewable energy; the blame was put on the consumer. Dutch people should turn on the AC less, take shorter showers, and use metal straws. Still, the Dutch government chooses to handle climate change in a Dutch way: pretend we’re doing a lot, whilst choosing to do little.

Now, I know that there is nuance in the way the Netherlands has dealt with climate change. However, drastic adjustment is needed and it is needed now. There’s no time for money-based politics or pats on the back for doing the bare minimum. The Netherlands need to take responsibility as a big polluter and turn away from short-term problem solving with dikes and dams and move to long-term prevention. Because at the end of the day, a drowning country with a lot of money in its pockets and a lot of big words about its intentions, will still drown.

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