Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Residual Reflection

By Ivy

Things have been non-stop since we arrived. Though I'm preparing for each coming day, I am still processing our experiences last week...

A major theme to the week was obviously water management. But digging a little deeper, other recurring themes emerged. Interagency agreement, the Polder Model, the survival instinct that accompanies the fight against nature, the definition of nature, the short attention span of the human mind.

Although elected bodies, water boards are currently more or less apolitical with the ability to set their own taxes to cover the expense of water infrastructure management. Recently, there has been a shift to politicize the water boards and possibly incorporate them into the provincial governments. Valid arguments can be made on both sides: consolidate government to reduce costs vs. maintain local control to keep money for dike repair.

A main drive for the shift appears to be the feeling that because a flood has not occurred in recent memory (for most, 1953 is a long time gone), resources can be consolidated. The dikes have worked for decades, so of course they should continue to protect the people. The attention span has been reached. The problem is that water management is a dynamic job requiring constant monitoring and maintenance, especially in the Netherlands. There is a danger that in consolidation, resources will be diverted to other projects, leaving dike maintenance for another administration.

It appears to be less a feeling of apathy, but more a feeling of comfort. This feeling extends to many aspects of our experience: expecting the tap water to turn on because it did yesterday, expecting it to rain because it did last year, expecting an engineered solution to fix another environmental problem because we were able to fix the last one.

Although history can be an excellent teacher, he may not be psychic. There is a danger in taking elements of every day life for granted. We notice when the electricity goes out and suddenly we are helpless. We notice when the reservoirs are empty and our taps are dry. We notice when our environment is covered in oil.

This week I've been thinking a lot about the Dutch experience and perception of environment. Although I'm now studying engineering, I am an environmentalist at heart (a vegetarian tree hugger, I suppose). Perceptions of safety can be applied to natural environmental systems as well as engineered ones; if the dikes are allowed to decay, there will be too much water. If surface and groundwater are polluted, there won't be enough.

In a way, the Dutch have backed themselves into a corner by centuries of manipulation of the land and the natural environment. It's a demonstration of the resiliency of a people and an environment. However, I think it is also a lesson in appreciating the value of what we have and the importance of protecting it.

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