Managing Dutch Water Safety Vulnerabilities A social cultural perspective on the threats of flooding
02 / 2010 - 01 / 2011
The title of the public campaign "The Netherlands Lives with Water "(Nederland Leeft met Water) contains an implicit statement that asks for questioning. Does the Netherlands live with water. Our initial examination revealed that Dutch society at the beginning of the 21 century does not live with water in the sense of any awareness of water safety issues (Heems, T. en B. Kothuis, Veilig leven met water is een gevaarlijke illusie, in NRC Handelsblad, Opinie & Debat, 28 januari 2006.). This conclusion asked for further scientific exploration. Further research elucidated that particular aspects of water safety are quite sensitive. Three aspects play a dominant role in this sensitivity: environment (in the sense of how the relation between man and nature is perceived), controllability and accountability. How can these sensitivities be interpreted and where do they find their origin? A discourse analysis of 6 reports of well-established advice comities on Dutch national water management from 1953 to 2009, showed not only the changes in meaning given to the defined sensitizing concepts, but demonstrated also some fundamental transitions in water safety discourse (from reasoning out of the social strongly embedded flush of victory to more cognitive based risk reasoning) and the (breaking of the) taboo of publicly speaking about flood disaster as a realistic scenario. The transition in discourses brings along several consequences for policymakers and high water management since government can nor will guarantee 100% dry feet in future. Society will have to take its share of responsibilities to keep The Netherlands safe. Serious incidents in the beginning of the new millennium and increasing uncertainties around climate change are reasons for Dutch government to communicate more frequently about risks related to high water safety. The government assumes that increased high water risk awareness in society, based on a risk approach, is an important condition for sustainably living with water and it thus made this into a spearhead of policy (See for example advice of the Advice Commission Water of April 7th 2009 about communication and water policy (AcW-2009/105)). Until now government doesn?t succeed satisfactorily to realize such a high water risk awareness and behaviour. Our discourse analysis of public campaigns on water (safety) issues shows that their messages are not only entangled but also create confusion (Nederland Leeft met Water (see e.g.: www.nederlandleeftmetwater.nl) en Denk vooruit (see e.g.: www.crisis.nl). Reason of this entanglement in communication seems to be the taboo on publicly speaking of a flood disaster as a realistic scenario. The resulting lack of clarity obstructs Dutch government to bridge the gap in perception between itself and society and to achieve its policy objectives. Furthermore it can threaten the delicate balance in the social mechanisms of public trust and fear, important aspects in the relation between government and society (Heems, T. en B. Kothuis, Discoursen en waterveiligheid: waarom leiden publiekscampagnes niet tot waterbewustzijn en waterbewust gedrag?, in Tijdschrift voor Beleid & Maatschappij (B&M), Den Haag, Boom 2008-3). We test this hypothesis in the last part of our research by looking closer into the consequences of the dominant policy strategies in the reality of practitioners in the field. How is policy translated in everyday practice of involved actors? How do these actors handle mechanisms of fear and trust? We selected the case of Petten to execute an in depth case study (The village of Petten momentarily experiences a major threat concerning their water safety: one of the 13 Soft Spots (Zwakke Schakels) along the Dutch North Sea coast is situated immediately along the houses: The Hondsbossche en Pettemer Sea Wall. Since this is one of the priority-projects for Dutch government and several public, private as well as citizen factions are vehemently fighting for their (various) interests, this is an exemplary case of managing Dutch water safety vulnerabilities?). This PhD-project will be completed with advice to policymakers and administrators on how to optimize the relation with society on the boundary of taking care of water safety (Article 21 of the Constitution) and increasing vulnerabilities concerning threats of flooding.