Two of the most striking images from New Orleans feature helicopters. In one shot, a helicopter is dropping 15,000 bags of sand onto rushing waters that will obviously wash them away. In the second, the president projects a concerned gaze onto the diaster from a similar height. Engineering to control nature needs a social base and political consensus to be effective – and those are missing in New Orleans.
The creation of new land out of water, and keeping it dry, is a several centuries old tradition in the Netherlands. The famous Delta Works, the biggest Dutch public project ever, created giant pumping stations, dikes, and modern tidal protection systems, to keep the water from the sea and the rivers out. Behind these impressive achievements were the engineers and planners of Rijkswaterstaat (Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management). These were the true ‘makers’ of Holland who the writer Den Doolaard called ‘Water Wizards’. But these engineers have only been able to keep Holland dry because the Dutch sense of civic duty, solidarity and the commonweal: the need to take care of the dikes collectively is socially embedded, with the dike-warden as the key figure: he (I think they are all he) can order people to work in the dykes for the greater good of shared protection from the water. Without the tradition of the dike-warden, and his approach to managing the water by marshalling collective social effort, the Dutch ‘polder model’ of shared responsibility, consensus and a degree of skill at living together in a small space, would cease to work. Organisations like Future Water are doing fascinating work on the physical management of water, but the sobering lesson of the last days is that, if the social fabric goes, so too do the physical defences.