The Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier: A Test Case for Dutch Water Technology, Management, and Politics
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Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 569-584

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The Oosterschelde Storm Surge Barrier
A Test Case for Dutch Water Technology, Management, and Politics

Wiebe E. Bijker


"God created the world, and the Dutch created the Netherlands." The old adage summarizes—albeit in an immodest, not to say blasphemous, way—the popular Dutch view of their relationship to water. There is some truth in it: about half the country is below sea level and would be flooded without the dikes that hold back the waters of the rivers and the sea. But the relationship is not as straightforward—humans dominating nature—as the phrase suggests. It is, for example, mediated in complex ways by science and technology. In this essay I will focus on one recent crisis in this relationship between the Dutch and the sea, the disastrous flood of 1953, and its resolution through the Delta Plan, and in particular the building of the storm surge barrier in the Oosterschelde. 1 [End Page 569]

Technology has always played a central role in the relationship between the Dutch and the sea. From the earliest mound constructions, built to keep farm houses and outbuildings dry during the frequent floods, to windmills and steam-driven pumping stations the Dutch have actively tried to control their environment with technology. 2 But the science and technology needed for the Delta Plan, and especially the research and high-tech solutions used in the construction of the Oosterschelde barrier, constituted a radical departure from centuries-old traditions.

During the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, relations between government agencies and private construction companies involved in the building and maintenance of dikes, locks, sluices, and other water control structures were subject to routines and procedures that provided for adequate checks and balances. The central government agency responsible for the water control system, the Rijkswaterstaat, typically designed harbors, dikes, sluices, bridges, and so on, and then contracted the construction out to private companies. These companies submitted bids, sometimes joining together in consortia when the project was big and complicated, and the company or consortium with the lowest bid received the contract. Once construction began, the Rijkswaterstaat monitored the process. This style of management was radically changed for the Oosterschelde project. 3

The earliest forms of democracy in the Netherlands were related to dike and sluice maintenance and management. From the twelfth century onward, specialized water boards (waterschappen), supervised by elected councils, assumed responsibility for local dikes and sluices. These boards constituted a highly decentralized form of democracy in which all landowners had voting rights, with the weight of each vote depending on the extent of the landowner's property. The Delta Plan can be seen as a fundamental change in the balance between local and national water politics.

The Delta Plan, and particularly the Oosterschelde project, precipitated a crisis involving three aspects of the relationship between the Dutch and the sea: technology, management, and political culture. I will argue, however, that in the end that crisis only reinforced the basic characteristics of this relationship.

The 1953 Flood

On 31 January 1953, a Saturday night, ebb tide did not bring a lowering of the water level as it always does. Then, as the tide began to come in, a [End Page 570] storm pushed the water to higher than normal levels. In the early morning of 1 February the sea reached the top of the dikes in Zeeland, at the southern end of the Dutch coast. Waves started to nibble at the back slopes of the dikes, which are not armored by stones, undermining them from the rear, and eventually the dikes broke. Quickly the breaches were scoured out by the seawater rushing into the polders, several meters below sea level (fig. 1).

Analyses later showed that it had been neither a particularly high spring tide nor an exceptionally strong storm. It had, however, been a long-lasting storm, and, crucially, one that had changed direction in a very particular manner at exactly the wrong moment. A...