The Dutch international water sector needs storytellers

Simon Richter (University of Pennsylvania) joins the debate on exporting and translating Dutch water knowledge in other countries, with a reflection on his experience in Semarang (Indonesia) inspired by an article on Dutch Delta expertise in the Mekong published by our colleagues Shahnoor Hasan, Margreet Zwarteveen, Jaap Evers and Arjen Zegwaard.

Banger Polder presentation, seated on carpet (Credits: Cynthia van Elk, courtesy RVO)

I sometimes wonder if Dutch colleagues in the international water sector — whether stationed in the Netherlands or abroad — are aware of the Schadenfreude that arises when major Dutch projects fail or run into trouble. It’s not a sentiment I share, but I’ve encountered it often enough—most recently in connection with the ups and downs of the Great Garuda Seawall in Jakarta—to know that it’s real and to wonder what’s behind it. Why do some practitioners and colleagues in the field hold negative views about the Dutch and take pleasure in their failures? Is there something useful the Dutch water sector can learn from this? Are there adjustments to be made that would improve the transfer and reception of Dutch water know-how in other parts of the world?

What the water sector needs is a constructive critique that pays precise attention to the details of policy or design transfer in a holistic fashion. In a recent article, “Making Waves in the Mekong Delta: Recognizing the Work and the Actors Behind the Transfer of Dutch Delta Planning Expertise,” IHE Delft Doctoral Fellow Shahnoor Hasan and her mentors, Margreet Zwarteveen and Jaap Evers, together with Arjen Zegwaard (Wagenigen University) provide a model of the kind of analysis that will bring the required insights. Instead of assuming and advertising the universal applicability of Dutch water expertise to every delta, Shahnoor and her co-authors show that it’s better to recognize that numerous Dutch and local actors are involved in a process best understood as “translation” from one cultural and geographical idiom into another, in which the recipients’ local knowledge and expertise are equal co-participants. Analysis of documents and extensive interviews with Dutch and Vietnamese actors involved in the transfer of the Dutch Delta Approach to the Mekong Delta bears this out. The product of such a process will differ from the initial Dutch input, which some might count as a failure, but the sense of trust and local ownership created through the process increases the odds of success. Transfer is enabled by layers of cultural work rendered by both sides. It is important to “recognize” this work in both senses of the word: it needs to be perceived and acknowledged as an enabling component. In what follows, I will take the insights I have gained from Shahnoor’s article and apply them to contexts I am familiar with: the United States and Indonesia.

American opinions about Dutch water management expertise blow hot and cold. Thanks to relentless Dutch messaging, every time a hurricane strikes along the East Coast, in New Orleans or Houston, the media ask what seems to be the obvious question: Why don’t we bring in the Dutch? In one sense, the question is moot. The Dutch—and the Dutch approach, at least in principle—are already here and even deeply entrenched. In the US, it isn’t a problem to convince people that the Dutch have the solution—almost everyone believes that.

The problem is that American governments at all levels are not prepared to pay what Dutch solutions cost. Dutch water management technology and infrastructure are expensive if you’re planning for a 1 in 10,000-year storm, even if—given the deep uncertainty of our climate—it might be just a few years off. Take the idea for the “Ike-Dike” in Southwest Texas. This plan for a massive coastal barrier system to protect the Galveston-Houston region has been tossed around for ten years and it’s nowhere near getting funded.

It’s not just governments and tax payers that balk at the price tag. There is a mounting US-based critique coming from the world of landscape design that turns on issues of cost, social justice, and whether it’s appropriate to build Dutch-style infrastructure in the US. Pointing to iconic feats of engineering such as the Maeslant Storm Surge Barrier certainly impresses residents of coastal cities, but it also reinforces a particular view of the Dutch. In an article titled “The Dutch Can’t Save Us from Rising Seas,” my University of Pennsylvania colleague Billy Fleming argues that the Dutch approach “doesn’t necessarily translate to an American context.” For Billy, the Dutch approach amounts to “walls and dikes.” Instead of those, he says, “investments in community organizing and a more modest set of design tools can lessen its impacts and give people a chance to remake their lives, and the coast, for a wetter uncertain future.” Ashley Dawson is more scathing in his 2017 book Extreme Cities. He openly questions “the translatability of the Dutch experience with water” (141). His real gripe, however, is the “salt-water”-like penetration of “corrosive neoliberal ideologies … into Dutch systems of governance” (148) that in turn underlie the International Water Ambition. He rightly notes a deep contradiction in the Dutch position, albeit in florid language: “Absent collective and egalitarian efforts toward massive decarbonization and resource restraint, the Dutch, despite their great ingenuity and grit, will remain prisoners lashed to a sinking ship” (151).

Dutch apologists could claim that they’re being misrepresented—and, in a way, they are. The Dutch design toolkit obviously contains more than dikes and walls. Along another promotional track, the Dutch boast of their successes with soft infrastructure such as the Sand Motor, Room for the River, Building with Nature, the Katwijk dunes concealing parking garages and dikes, and even the Bobbing Forest next to the Floating Pavilion in Rotterdam’s historical harbor. But defensive protest doesn’t get you very far. These perceptions exist—and perhaps they’re not misperceptions altogether. Do the Dutch really control their message? Is there a single message to be controlled? As Shahnoor points out, the “Dutch Delta Approach” (DDA) is a “construction specifically invented to help create enthusiasm for Dutch water expertise in other parts of the world.” The DDA projects “a coherence and stability” that the Dutch themselves “may find difficult to recognize.” Dutch “ideas about what constitutes the best approach for living in, and dealing with, a delta are continuously changing and subject to debate.” Despite efforts to control the message abroad, there is a good chance that, on the ground, the Dutch left hand often has no idea what the right hand is doing.

Take, for example, the case of Semarang, Indonesia, one of three cities selected for RVO’s Water as Leverage for Asian Cities (WaL) program. WaL is an adaptation for the Global South of the Rebuild by Design model used in New York, which privileges process over pat solutions. Semarang is a medium-sized coastal city that, like Jakarta, is rapidly subsiding because of ground water extraction.

At the first WaL workshop, city planning representatives openly expressed their suspicion and discomfort about a process that was, in contrast to the Dutch Delta Approach, deliberately open-ended. Henk Ovink – the Dutch Special envoy for international water affairs – presiding over the program, had just warned members of the design teams not to come up with predetermined solutions. “If you know what to do, I’d love to fire you. Listen to the river, the people, the government, the environment.” But this rhetoric was at first unsettling to the city. Instead of a “coherent and stable” approach, Henk offered them a process and a commitment. “Of course, you have doubts. There is no certainty yet. We start with a process. The process is always a little different. Can we join the process with a certain amount of commitment or not? Do we trust the process or not?” With that second question, Henk raised the crucial question of trust. “We say in the Netherlands, trust comes like a turtle and leaves like a horse. Today is the first day of the turtle. Let’s build the trust together and continue to hold hands.” At this point, he recalled an anecdote from Rebuild by Design in New York. “When I developed this program for Obama, some people called it ‘Vague by Design.’ Trust doesn’t come today. I understand. But I hope you won’t leave. If you do, then it is a disconnect. Have the trust and guts to stay.

This was high drama! And there was a great deal more rhetorical intensity and invention on display in the course of the two-day workshop, also on the part of his Indonesian interlocutors who overcame their initial skepticism. Adopting the language and the flourishes of a revivalist preacher and an ardent lover by turns, Henk worked his magic in order to prepare the context for the collaborative effort about to begin. “We trust each other. But it’s like a marriage. Every day you invent it anew. The coalition is not about an easy win. It’s about falling in love. Finding inspiration in each other. Reinventing the coalition is what Water as Leverage is about. We promise you something. Promises are not always kept. A promise comes with a handshake. And a kiss. Sometimes it feels like we have to get down on our knees and feel the soil to understand the real, reality. Every kid, every woman, every river.” The metaphors of marriage and love, a handshake and a kiss, may seem out of place at first, but they are premised on mutual recognition and trust.

Can we say that Henk Ovink doesn’t represent the Dutch approach? That doesn’t seem right. For much of the world, he is the embodiment of the Dutch approach. What is striking is that Henk’s conception of the relationship between RVO and the Netherlands, on the one hand, and the local government, stakeholders, and design teams, on the other, (and, if there were a third hand, we’d have to say the development investment banks, as well), is in terms of an open-ended and inclusive process—a process, I might add, that crucially involves the communicative and rhetorical use of language. And this, of course, is precisely the analytical model that Shahnoor and her co-authors propose: “There is merit in conceptualizing policy transfer as a process of translation, with the people involved acting as negotiators or knowledge brokers” (15; my emphasis).

Not Dutch experts talking down to the locals, but Dutch experts being surprised by the substantial and diverse expertise on the ground and open to seeing their perspective altered by the interaction, quite possibly for the better and, in any case, more informed by the local physical and cultural topography. Or, as Shahnoor puts it: “Perhaps the most important advantage of thinking about policy transfer in terms of translations is that it allows recognition of the intrinsically dialogical character of the processes involved: by not attributing privileged agency to the experts and expertise of the country of origin, the idea of translation creates much-needed room for better acknowledging how knowledge and knowers learn from each other, even when the grounds on which they meet are not always level.”

What I find intuitively right about Shahnoor’s approach is that it understands the transfer process of Dutch water expertise to Bangladesh, Vietnam or Indonesia as a “story to be told.” Storytelling is both artful and analytic. A good story teller finds the right genre for telling the tale within the material itself. She collects data and perspectives on the data. She assembles the timeline and works it into a storyline. As Aristotle points out in the Poetics, the ideal plot involves moments of reversal and recognition. In the cases Shahnoor studies and I experienced in Semarang, the reversal is the unexpected outcome of the transfer process—some might regard that as failure, but there is reason to regard it as success. Recognition is the sudden insight into an important truth: certain cultural habits of the Dutch stand in the way of success. Developing a greater self-awareness and opening up intentionally to a more collaborative process along the lines that Henk advocated at the Semarang workshop will lead to culturally hybrid results that are inherently better. The finely tuned, ethnographic storytelling of Shahnoor and her team members performs this reflective function for the Dutch water sector. Dutch development goals and Dutch water management know-how are admirable. Despite the Schadenfreude-infused skepticism of some, the Dutch have an immensely important role to play in the world. The constructive self-critique that Shahnoor’s article enables could help them perform it better.

As a humanist who was a member of the One Resilient Semarang design team led by Matthijs Bouw of One Architecture and Urbanism, in close collaboration with Surakarta-based Kota Kita, I have to say that reading Shahnoor’s article has helped me not only to better understand the process I witnessed and participated in, but also to define my function on the team more precisely. Over the course of a year, our international and multidisciplinary team interacted intensely, seriously, and repeatedly with both the city planning office and a broad array of provincial authorities, stakeholders, local experts, and residents in the development of a comprehensive, integrated plan, published in parallel English and Indonesian translation. Because of the participatory and collaborative nature of the Water as Leverage process as a whole, the city planning office increasingly came to regard the resulting multi-pronged plan consisting of water neutral industries, a network of resilient kampungs, and an integrated coastal zone–each contributing toward the goal of stemming subsidence–as its own.

On 13 March 2019, the mayor of Semarang, the ambassador of the Netherlands in Jakarta, and Henk Ovink signed an agreement to implement the plan. In the aftermath, I realize that I’ve been the team’s story-teller all along. Telling that story to myself and to other participants—through narratives based on detailed notes and my attention to the human and literary aspects of the process–was also a key part of the process. The Dutch water sector needs people like Shahnoor, who cannot only help participants understand the stories they’re in, but also help them craft stories with others that they’d be proud to tell.

To read the full article:

Hasan, S., Evers, J., Zegwaard, A., & Zwarteveen, M. (2019). Making waves in the Mekong Delta: recognizing the work and the actors behind the transfer of Dutch Delta planning expertise. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 1-20.

Cite this blog post
Simon Richter (2019, September 20). The Dutch international water sector needs storytellers. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Simon Richter

Simon Richter is the Class of 1965 Endowed Term Professor of German and Dutch Literature and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in cultural aspects of water management and adaptation to sea level rise, with a focus on the Netherlands, Indonesia, and the United States. As an environmental humanist, Richter engages in activities that blur distinctions between traditional scholarship, urban design, and environmental activism. He was instrumental in establishing the Penn 1.5 Minute Climate Lectures and Climate Week at Penn. With Fine Arts Prof. Joshua Mosley, Richter directs the Penn Animation as Research Lab, which produces the popular Project Poldergeist series of videos about climate adaptation in the Netherlands.

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