Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

The Dutch People and Water

Posted by butalidnl on 29 May 2006

The Dutch people have been long known for how they relate to water. Through the years of my staying in the Netherlands, visitors have all kinds of ideas about this, though. For example, many think that the Netherlands is mostly below “sea level” (some even say that we live “under the sea level” – as if we can breath under waterūüôā ) This is not true. While there are a lot of places where the rivers are higher than the towns that they pass, the level of these rivers are always higher than that of the sea¬†( otherwise, how will the water flow to the sea?).

It was only when I came here that I realized that the story of the Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike to save his land is not true. It is a ridiculous story, actually. Anybody here knows that if water starts to flow through a dike, it will break through that dike unless urgent big measures are taken, e.g. lots of sandbags etc. These sandbags should be put at the water side of the dike, and not on the dry side. Putting a hand to try to stop the water flow will not help. Anyway, let’s go back to the story of the Dutch boy and his finger in the dike. This story is the product of the imagination of a New York based American writer, Mary Elizabeth Mapes Dodge (1831-1905) who first wrote the story. This story became famous in America, and later the rest of the world. It was even translated into Dutch, although the Dutch ignored it for so long because it was quite ridiculous. Many American tourists, thinking that the story was true, were frustrated for many years, because they could not find any sign marking the dike in question. Worse, the Dutch were not even familiar with the story!¬† Finally, in 1950, the Dutch Tourism Bureau decided to place a statue to “commemorate the Dutch boy” at Spaarndam, in order to satisfy the American tourists.

There is one legend of the Dutch and water that is not well known, though.
In¬†the¬†Middle Ages, the Dutch developed a¬†unique torture instrument. In those days, it was a crime to be lazy.¬†Some of the lazy prisoners were put in a tank with a¬†hand pump. Then¬†water was¬†made to flow into the tank. As the water filled the tank, the idea was that the prisoner would have to use the hand pump (thus, to work) in order to save his own life. This would be starting point of the¬†“rehabilitation process” of this lazy person. The story goes on to say, however, that people stopped using this torture instrument when one person was soooo lazy that he drowned – apparently too lazy to work the pump even to save his own life!

It is generally thought that the Dutch revolt against the Spaniards in the 16th century was driven by their difference in religion. The Dutch being protestants (Calvinists) and the Spaniards Catholic.¬† Well, the real reason behind the revolt was nothing of the sort.¬† The Dutch had since at least the 12th century managed their waterworks (the canals, dikes etc.) through a decentralized network of “waterschappen” (or “water councils”)- which were elected locally. The waterschappen system worked well, and the Dutch were able to keep their fields and homes dry most of the time. The Spaniards didn’t really invade the country, they sort of inherited it through¬†various feudal¬†mechanisms e.g. marriages, alliances etc. Well, one day the Dutch¬†found that the Spaniards were now the new lords. For the most part, they didn’t mind – after all, they have had other lords before, and as long as you pay taxes and behaved yourselves, these new lords would probably be all right. Or so they thought. It was only when the Spaniards decided to centralize (!!) the waterworks system (and thus, abolish the waterschappen) that the Dutch went up in arms. They were horrified that a centralized management of the waterworks would be so ineffective that the whole country would be under water in no time.
Well, to make that long story short: the Dutch drove the Spaniards out of the Netherlands after a couple of years. And to this day, the country’s waterschappen still manage most of the waterworks systems in the Netherlands.

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