By Barend ter Haar, Clingendael Institute of International Relations, former Netherlands ambassador to UNESCO.
How our past can help us in the future.
A visitor that arrives at SchipholAirport by plane, seldom notices that he disembarks on the bottom of a big lake about three meters below sea level. He might have read that a large part of the Netherlands is below sea level, but does he realise that this implies a ceaseless fight between the Dutch and the sea?
The history of this continuing fight is a fascinating story. Knowing it is essential to understand the peculiar form of the Dutch landscape but also to understand Dutch culture and politics.
If you want to know this story, there is no better and more enjoyable manner than by taking a few days off to visit the World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands. Seven of them are directly related to water and together they tell the story of the fighting marriage between the Dutch and the sea.
Start with the Waddensea. It shows you how a large part of the Netherlands would look like if we would allow the sea back in: beautiful, but little room for people to live.
Sometimes we lost our battle with the sea and had to abandon an island. The former island of Schokland tells that story. The windmills at Kinderdijk and the steam pumping station at Lemmer illustrate our centuries long quest to develop techniques that make it possible to live permanently in polders below sea level.
The Beemster, to the North of Amsterdam, is a perfect example of such a polder.
The seventeenth-century canals of Amsterdam are above all a landmark of city planning combining water, buildings and green spaces. The fortresses around Amsterdam show how the Dutch have used their knowledge of hydraulic engineering for defence purposes.
The continuous rise of the sea level and the higher frequency of periods of extreme rain or drought that we have to reckon with can threaten this heritage. But by visiting and learning about that heritage, people can become aware that the availability of safe drinking water and the protection against floods can never be taken for granted. Such awareness, both of governments and of the general public, of the need to pay continuous attention to our relationship with water will be crucial.
The Netherlands is of course not the only country built at the border of land and sea. Many civilisations and cities were built in delta’s and their heritage is therefore endangered by climate change. But the heritage can be used to inform the public and spatial planners.
In order to share experiences on heritage protection and water management and to promote international cooperation, ICOMOS (the International Council on Monuments and Sites) convened last September an international conference in Amsterdam. More than 100 water, heritage and planning experts from over 20 countries participated. The conference resulted in The Statement of Amsterdam: “Protecting delta’s: heritage helps!” (see http://www.icomosconference.nl )