The cabinet does not consider it necessary to apologize to the victims of the flood disaster. At the time, there had been warnings for decades that the Dutch dikes were insufficient. “Even if people had thought: we have to get started with this, then the people, resources and money were simply lacking.”
This is what Minister Mark Harbers says in an interview with this news site. The VVD minister emphasizes that to answer the question of whether the cabinet is considering apologies, you have to go back to the time when the flood disaster took place. “The country had been through the Second World War for five years. Walcheren has been flooded.” According to him, the damage was ‘barely repaired’. “Everyone, the whole country was in ruins.”
Even if the Dutch government had wanted to strengthen and raise the dykes, it simply lacked the people, resources and money to do so, argues Harbers. In the speech he gave on Wednesday at the commemoration of the flood disaster, he acknowledged that ‘we already knew in the 1920s and 1930s that many dikes in our country were too low and too weak’.
But after the Second World War, according to him, ‘reconstruction took priority’. “Making our country habitable and passable, that demanded all our attention. And despite the realization that the coastal defenses had to be overhauled – despite Johan van Veen’s heartfelt cries – that work was not done”, Harbers admitted on Wednesday.
The dikes were not designed for hours of storms with wind force ten and seawater that rose to exceptional heights of 4.55 meters above the normal level. They broke in more than one hundred and fifty places. The disaster killed 1,836 people.
Read on under the image of Johan van Veen
With Johan van Veen, the minister is referring to the water management engineer from Groningen who had been publishing articles since the thirties – about 25 years before the flood disaster – in which he pointed out that the dikes along the Dutch and Zeeland coasts were too low. In 1939, the Groningen man became secretary of a storm surge committee and worked on a plan to connect the South Holland islands with a dike. Halfway through the war, he published a plan to close the entire coastline from Zeeuws-Vlaanderen to Vlieland. According to the ministry, internal apologies have been made to him.
Read on under the image of the ‘Closing plans for intermediate waters’.
A few weeks after the flood disaster, Van Veen became chairman of the Delta Committee that prepared the construction of the Delta Works. He experienced the start of it. The Groninger, born in 1893 – ‘a stubborn and unruly little man who knew all his life that he was smarter than others’, is how History describes him – died in 1959.
Read on under the photo of his daughter Marianne at the unveiling of his statue in 2020.
“The fact that a severe storm could cause a disaster of such magnitude was partly due to the poor condition of the dikes,” Rijkswaterstaat admits. In the south-west of the Netherlands, many dikes were too low and too weak. The water boards had done little maintenance in the years before. Too little money had also been invested in the dikes. According to Rijkswaterstaat, ‘quite a bit’ had been spent on water safety, but after 1945 this subject was given ‘less priority due to the repair of war damage’.
Read the full interview with Minister Mark Harbers here.
This week was the commemoration of the flood disaster. Are we doing enough now to protect the Netherlands against the water?
“We are doing everything we can and of course we have given a historically great answer after the flood disaster with the Delta Plan and all those Delta Works in Zeeland. This has now been transferred to the Delta Programme. Every year we look at what the current situation is and also further ahead. We are now working on a very large investment to ensure that all dikes are further up to 2050 for what may be coming our way due to climate change.”
According to the International Climate Panel (IPCC), sea levels have risen by 26 to 82 centimeters on a global scale by the end of the 21st century. Are we also looking beyond 2050?
“This is one of the few subjects in which we also look beyond 2050. We are now conducting major research into what the sea will do. Will it rise? And all scenarios for how much. In the coming years, we will be thinking about: what will that require of the Netherlands after 2050 or perhaps even after 2100, because these are long-term matters. The Delta Works also took about seventy years from the first idea to realisation. So you have to look very far ahead.”
Also listen to our podcast Politics Close, and subscribe via Spotify or Apple:
Is this an ongoing process that just keeps going?
“This is deep in our genes. We never want another disaster like 1953. We must do everything we can to prevent that from happening. You already see that. We have to deal with 1500 kilometers of dikes. Work is already underway on this in a number of places in the Netherlands. Before January 1, all water boards have made an inventory: what is the state of my dikes? Where should we get started? Where can that wait longer. This way we can design the entire program up to 2050. So that we know exactly: it is at its strength there and it can wait another ten or twenty years there.”
Now there are still people who have experienced the disaster. It won’t be long before they are gone. Is there anything you or the cabinet would like to tell them?
“Their memories really go through the marrow and bone. I also spoke this week after the commemoration. We have all seen the reports on TV and in the newspapers. We should always carry those stories with us. it is our task to ensure that we keep the country safe against flooding and flooding. We need to make sure those stories are always available. That is why there is the Flood Museum, which is also the national memorial center. From the national government, we will continue to contribute financially to ensure that all those stories are always available for future generations.”
Has the government given any thought to apologizing to victims?
“I always went back to those years. There were warnings. I mentioned Johan van Veen in my speech. But I always try to think: how should one get started with this? How on earth could they have done that? The country had been through the Second World War for five years. Walcheren has been flooded. That was barely fixed. Everyone, the whole country was in ruins. There was a housing shortage. Roads, bridges, everything had to be repaired. I think that even if people had thought: we have to get on with this, it simply lacked the people and the resources and the money. That led to this natural disaster in the most dramatic scenario. I think we do well to honor the people who lived through it. Honor them and continue to learn from them to make sure this never happens again.”
Also listen to the podcast The Missing of ’53. In which people tell who experienced the flood disaster as a child.
Stay informed of the latest news about the Provincial Council elections and read exactly what we are voting for in these elections.
Watch here how the flood disaster was commemorated in the House of Representatives last week:
Free unlimited access to Showbytes? Which can!
Log in or create an account and don’t miss a thing of the stars.