Netherlands to flood Westerschelde polder

Summary

The dredging of the Westerschelde – the sea channel approach to the Port of Antwerp – can now go ahead following the Dutch government’s decision last week to flood the Hedwigepolder in Zeeland province. The decision brings to an end weeks of tension between the Dutch and Flemish governments over this issue. But Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende made it clear that he was agreeing reluctantly and described his “disappointment” at being unable to save the polder.

Local people protested at plans for the ontpoldering, or flooding of the land
 
Local people protested at plans for the ontpoldering, or flooding of the land

Dutch prime minister bows to the inevitable

The dredging of the Westerschelde – the sea channel approach to the Port of Antwerp – can now go ahead following the Dutch government’s decision last week to flood the Hedwigepolder in Zeeland province. The decision brings to an end weeks of tension between the Dutch and Flemish governments over this issue. But Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende made it clear that he was agreeing reluctantly and described his “disappointment” at being unable to save the polder.

The flooding of the Hertogin Hedwigepolder is the result of a plan to protect wildlife in the Scheldt estuary – an important location providing feeding and breeding grounds for waterfowl. But it has struck a sensitive chord with the Dutch – especially Zeelanders – since the reclaiming of polder land from the sea is a centuries-old tradition. Moreover, many people still remember the terrible storms in 1953 in which more than 1,800 people died after the dikes broke.

The dredging of the Westerschelde was agreed between the two governments in a 2005 treaty. The approach is crucial to Antwerp’s shipping traffic, but the passage is silting up and requires dredging at 12 important points. The depth of the channel’s draft also needs to be increased to allow the new generation of giant container ships to reach Antwerp.

The idea of flooding polder land was in the Dutch government’s original plans, but last April Balkenende’s government suddenly changed its mind, scrapping the flooding plan and focusing instead on creating estuarine marches outside the sea dikes. Two nature organisations argued that this would not offer protection for wildlife and took a case to the Council of State, which ordered a stop to the plan.

The Hague government has now bowed to the inevitable and accepted that flooding is the only way it can fulfil its environmental obligations and appease its Flemish treaty partners.

But Dutch-Flemish relations have suffered as a result of the courtordered delay. The Dutch were not only being blamed for backing out on a promise, but also accused of doing so for commercial gain, since super-containers that could not reach Antwerp would be attracted by the Dutch port of Rotterdam.

Kris Peeters, whose portfolio as Flemish minister-president includes the ports, made diplomatic but stern overtures to his Dutch counterpart. Meanwhile, Antwerp politicians Annick De Ridder and Ludo Van Campenhout met with equal measures of ridicule and populist support when they proposed a boycott on Zeeland mussels and oysters.

At the weekend, all parties were keen to congratulate themselves on the “breakthrough”, as De Standaard called it. But real results could still be many months away as the Dutch government’s decision has to be supported by the parliament. The Council of State’s suspension of the dredging has to be overturned, and the owner of the Hedwigepolder – ironically a West Flanders businessman named Gery De Cloedt – has to be convinced to sell the land, either at the price offered by the Dutch (“a good offer,” according to Dutch agriculture minister Gerda Verburg) or via a compulsory purchase.

De Cloedt has said he will take any legal steps needed to keep from losing his land. As Flanders Today went to press, one local paper predicted that work could start as early as February, but this might prove to be an optimistic forecast.

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Netherlands to flood Westerschelde polder

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