Dutch delta masterplans: what makes them travel and what makes them Dutch?

Giacomo Galli, Andres Verzijl, Arjen Zegwaard and Margreet Zwarteveen offer an account of the “Delta Dynamics: Dutch masterplans and SDGs” sessions at the conference “Critical perspectives on governance by Sustainable Development Goals: Water Food and Climate”, which took place on 26 June 2018 at the University of Amsterdam.

“In Indonesia we’ve got 17000 islands, why do you want to build more?” this is what Marthin Hadiwinata of KNTI, Indonesia said during the Dynamic Deltas session at the CSDS conference organized at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). Marthin was making this statement in relation to the NCICD plans for the Jakarta Bay area, where the suggested design of the Garuda barrage comprise of a series of land reclamations, or fake islands as he likes to call them, to be made along the coast of Jakarta. Marthin was one of the four speakers articulating an explicitly situated perspective on Dutch aided delta and masterplanning for different regions in the world. Marthin’s sharp question touched upon the core theme of this session: dealings of Dutch water experts elsewhere.

All around the world – from Argentina to Vietnam, from New Orleans to Jakarta – Dutch masterplans serve the purpose of drawing attention to what the Dutch are capable of doing in terms of water. In her welcoming words, Margreet Zwarteveen explained that the idea for this session emerged because of our interest in and concern about how these plans succeed (or not) in framing water problems in a certain way, and about how they interfere with democratic decision making processes around water and water futures. The normal storyline of the successful export of Dutch expertise only provides one of a number of possible ways to talk about masterplans. Other possible stories include one of long-standing friend- and partnerships between water professionals from different countries; one of traveling experts who spend their lives and careers working in places far from their home; or one of barely disguised neo-colonialism and capitalist imperialism. The existence of more than one story indicates that Dutch water dealings elsewhere are a source of controversy – and give rise to sometimes heated emotions. We planned the double session of today to have a more in-depth conversation about some of these questions with a wide range of people somehow involved in promoting, being affected by or studying Dutch masterplans.

Shahnoor Hasan of IHE Delft gave a very convincing talk, presenting Dutch delta planning in Bangladesh from a Bangladeshi perspective. Among the first points, Shahnoor mentioned the enormous difference between the situation of Bangladesh and the delta of the Dutch. She then questioned how Dutch promotional texts claim that Bangladesh is in need for a Delta plan, using this narrative to justify that the Dutch interfere in Bangladesh water matters. The need for a plan and for Dutch assistance to help develop it, as Shahnoor stressed, is not something that emerges spontaneously. Instead, it is actively constructed and the outcome of a lot of work. This is work done by a range of actors, including representatives of universities, consultancy companies and the Dutch embassy. According to Shahnoor, it is not problematic in itself that this work is being done. What is problematic is that because of promotional texts and popular ways of talking about Dutch delta support, this work seems to disappear. These texts thereby fail to do justice to the historical friendships and actively nurtured relations of collaboration and knowledge-exchange that are necessary to allow Dutch and Bangladeshi actors to successfully work together on planning delta futures in Bangladesh. They also foreground technical accounts of Dutch initiated scenario development processes as determining the process, to the neglect of the many contributions carried out by Bangladeshi scholars and stakeholders. Shahnoor’s take-home message was that Delta plans do not travel spontaneously!

“The Vietnamese kicked out the Chinese, the French and the American, why should they not also kick out the Dutch?” This is how Michel Tonneijk of RoyalHaskoningDHV explained why Dutch consultants decided to leave out the ‘Governance’ chapter from the Mekong Delta Plan they had helped drafting. Michel was the project leader member of this team of Dutch experts. Early in his talk, he too pointed to differences between the Dutch delta and the vast seasonal changes that occur in the Mekong case. The story he told about Dutch work in Vietnam was one of struggles. He for instance highlighted the difficult discussions with Vietnamese counterparts about future scenarios and the conflicting ideas about the role that visions about the future play in the larger plan. Michel was really frank about the fact that stakeholder involvement in the process was rather limited. Despite this, he considered the Plan to be successful: it did play an important role in aligning and bringing together international funding communities in Vietnam and eventually led to the adoption of a resolution on “sustainable and climate resilient development of the Mekong Delta” by the national government in Ha Noi.

Although these two accounts on Dutch Delta planning in Asian contexts are partly contrasting, they converge in that they both highlight some of the difficulties in making Dutch expertise travel, the work that goes into creating interest in and actual development of these plans, and the often politically sensitive navigations that delta planners have to engage in to create the needed local support and buy-in.

Maarten Gischler of the Dutch Ministry of foreign affairs likened the processes of formulating the Beira Masterplan in Mozambique to a game of chess in the town Hall. Though Maarten expressed some concerns about the “intrinsic motivation to play chess” of the people involved, he considered the fact that in Beira there now is one chess board instead of two – one in the city and one in the harbour – is quite an achievement in itself. With the risk of stretching the chessboard metaphor a little too far, Maarten’s account (like that of Michel Tonneijk) did raise questions about who are involved in this game: chess is not really a team sport. Where in the Mekong case of Michel Tonneijk the use of future scenarios made it possible to include unusual or less popular themes, Maarten openly wondered whether in the Beira case infrastructure development takes precedence over social development. Or can the development of infrastructure be strategically used to also promote social development? Whatever the case, the latest Beira investor conference made it very clear that in an aid dependent country like Mozambique, even a visionary mayor must eventually follow the agendas of its donors for infrastructure development.

Marthin Hadiwinata, representing the fishery communities of the Jakarta Bay (Photo: A. Verzijl)

As the final speaker in the morning session Marthin Hadiwinata introduced yet another perspective on Dutch Delta and Master planning, the perspective of those whose voices and interests are not normally or sufficiently included in Master or Delta planning processes. It was something that was hinted at in previous talks: stakeholder involvement in relation to situational differences and perspectives. Marthin talked about the fisherfolk working and living in Jakarta Bay, whose livelihoods depend on the sea. Marthin explained how these fisherfolk did not feel they had had the opportunity to express their concerns about the NCICD project. Rather than considering Jakarta Bay as a potential threat to Jakarta, for the fishery communities it is above all a fishing ground. Moreover, in the analysis of these communities and many others, the major flood threat to Jakarta does not come from the sea but is related to the extremely rapid subsidence of the city (also see our previous blogposts: Uneven urbanization and Worlding water supply). Flood protection, as Marthin by means of conclusion stated, should work for the people, not for trade agendas.

After lunch, and perhaps in line with Marthin’s suggestion to reconceptualise Jakarta bay as a fishing ground, we transformed the room where the Dynamic Deltas session was held into a fishbowl. A fish-bowl is the name for a method to organize and structure discussion. In our version of it, we placed four chairs in the centre of the room, with three consecutive participants being invited to provide a provocative opening statement before taking a seat on one of the chairs. Other participants can occupy the remaining seats and engage in discussion.

Discussing Dutch Delta planning in a fishbowl (Photo: A. Verzijl)

André van Ommeren, programme coordinator of the Interdepartmental Water Cluster, a cooperation effort of three different Dutch Ministries which (also) work on water, was the first to provide such a statement. Starting his talk with concern about climate change and natural disasters, he explained the international efforts of the Dutch government in mitigating and adapting to droughts and floods through its International Water Ambition. His labelling of these efforts as ‘soft and small’ sparked an interesting discussion with Bosman Batubara,  who questioned how what the Dutch are doing in Jakarta is small and soft. Peter Letitre, Deltares representative in Indonesia and involved in Dutch water projects there, took the opportunity to express his recognition of the concerns and critiques raised about process and impacts of Dutch water plans and projects. He invited the critical social scientists and activists to join hands with those who are burdened with responsibilities for the actual design and implementation of plans and projects.

Leon Dulce, national coordinator for Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Philippines) gave the opening statement for a second round of fishbowl discussion. He eloquently conveyed the experiences with the design of the Tide Embankment Project after super-typhoon Hayan, which resulted in choosing a Japanese ‘hard sea wall’ over a Dutch ‘green and grey’ design. Even though the incorporation of such ‘Dutch’ green features in the final design was promised to the communities and civil society, this never materialised. This left many with the impression that what had happened was yet another business-as-usual greenwashing approach. Now, for proposed plans in the Manila Bay where a Dutch-led consortium is developing a masterplan, similar fears arise. What if the Dutch masterplanning is misused by the local administration to justify ongoing large-scale land reclamations in the Bay? Already fishing communities are seeing the mudflats and mangrove forests being destroyed; they are also being intimidated into refraining from protests. This set off a discussion between André and Leon on where the responsibilities lie in such cases: who owns the project? Given that in the context of the Duterte administration the infringement of human rights is commonplace, where does this leave the good intentions of the Dutch to be inclusive and participatory? Can responsibilities for local participation be shifted to the local administration without fear for reprisals or does the Netherlands have to carry its share too, given that it is investing in such a high-risk country? These are issues that translate to other cases as well.

Where Leon raised concerns about master planning in a country where much takes place in the underground, not captured or discussed through official channels, Maaike van Aalst of Deltares and Vrije Universiteit argued, based on her experiences with delta planning in Vietnam and Bangladesh, to give much more attention to what happens on the ground. The Dutch, as she said, tend to have a pre-occupation with water when considering deltaic places. In the Netherlands this might make sense, because most of the land use in the Netherlands has become rather fixed, and the water system is there to support the functions of the land. In the delta settings where Maaike has worked this is much less the case. Land use like the meandering rivers, is very dynamic and interacts with the waters and people on it and around it. Maaike thus provocatively challenged the Dutch master and delta planner to reconsider they ways in which they ´know’ the areas they work in. This led Rachel Thompson, PhD candidate at Harvard University, to question whether the Netherlands’ intentions to engage in knowledge exchange with other countries are really a two-way process. As was mentioned throughout day, knowledge exchange takes effort on all parties involved; yet experts, Dutch or otherwise, are more inclined to ‘export expertise’ by talking about what is successful domestically rather than sharing what had gone wrong or was difficult in the process.

The session brought together people with opposing opinions, ideologies and interests, people that know of each other but who do not often meet. The tension this generated at the start of the day was tangible. Some of the opening reflections by Margreet Zwarteveen, professor of Water Governance at IHE-Delft and the University of Amsterdam, may also have contributed to a feeling of unease among some participants. Her questions on what makes Dutch masterplans ‘Dutch’ and what makes them travel, are perhaps not the ones that engineers tend to ask, or at least not in these words. Would the ‘travelling experts’ in the room be taken to task and confronted by social scientists and activists? By the time Margreet closed the session, the initial tension had dissipated. The conversations and discussions had started yielding joined reflections and the beginning of a shared search for possibilities to do things differently.

Throughout the day it became very clear that what Dutch water experts do when they work in other countries may have very little to do with water. They spend much of their time and dedicate most of their efforts on doing what could be called politics or diplomacy: talking to people, bringing interested parties together, creating interest in and support for the kinds of projects that the Dutch can help finance and technically support. Yet, in official accounts of their activities this work hardly appears, not do many water experts themselves tend to talk about what they do as diplomacy or politics. Developing a language that allows to more explicitly reflect on and take responsibility for this political work would be useful.

This is all the more important because of a second important thread in the discussions: that of ownership and responsibility. How can Dutch funders and experts become more accountable to those whose livelihoods are directly affected by the projects they help designing and implementing? In countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, countries with a serious democratic deficit in which critical voices are actively suppressed and where opposition to the powers that be is severely and sometimes violently punished, trying to do this through forms of stakeholder inclusion is naïve and ineffective. How to build stronger relations of solidarity with those people whose voices and interests are not only not heard, but for whom speaking out is dangerous?

Many of those who were present during this day expressed interest in continuing the conversation, to jointly search for ways of talking, thinking and doing things differently – more responsibly. IHE-Delft and Both ENDS are more than happy to facilitate and help organize follow-up sessions. Interested? Do let us know!


The “Delta Dynamics: Dutch masterplans and SDGs” sessions were organized by Giacomo Galli (Both ENDS), Raquel Hadrich Silva (UvA), Rachel Thompson (Harvard University), Andres Verzijl (UvA), Arjen Zegwaard (UvA), Margreet Zwarteveen (IHE Delft and UvA), within the framework of the project DoUbT: Deltas Dealing with Uncertainties.

Featured image: PH-OFO – FO-022 Fokker 100 (F-28-0100) (cn 11462) KLM Cityhopper by Andrew Thomas licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0


Cite this blog post
Margreet Zwarteveen (2018, June 29). Dutch delta masterplans: what makes them travel and what makes them Dutch? FLOWs. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/os05

Margreet Zwarteveen

I am professor of Water Governance at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education and the University of Amsterdam. Trained as both an engineer and a social scientist, I study water allocation policies and practices, focusing on questions of equity and justice. My research includes the study of different institutional and technical modalities for allocating water and regulating water flows, and of different ways to understand or legitimize these. I use an interdisciplinary approach, seeing water allocation as the often contested outcome of interactions between nature, technologies and society.

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