Gerard A. Persoon & Huub de Jonge

Living behind dikes and dams – Gerard A. Persoon and Huub de Jonge

The Transformation of the Island Societies of Urk and Noord-Beveland in the Netherlands

The abolishing of the island status of both Urk and Noord-Beveland has had far-reaching consequences for its inhabitants, although these consequences have differed for the two areas. Despite being landlocked and the loss of an open connection to the North Sea, Urk has remained a fishing village. Indeed, fishery has increased in importance, as has the fish processing industry; the greater part of the population is still directly or indirectly dependent on fisheries. On Noord-Beveland, since the realization of the Deltaplan, agriculture is no longer the main source of livelihood. Due to the fixed links with surrounding islands and the mainland, the number of people employed in agriculture has decreased rapidly; agriculture has been outstripped by tourism and the services sector.Since Urk became part of the Noordoostpolder, its population has increased more than fivefold, mainly through autochtonous growth, while the number of inhabitants of Noord-Beveland has hardly increased since the island was opened up. The economy of Urk provides enough employment for the steadily growing population. On Noord-Beveland, however, people are still forced to leave the island to make a living. Although tourism has created employment over the last decades, it has not been enough to stop out-migration.

The fixed links have had a mainly positive influence on Urk as a community. Mutual solidarity, reticence towards outsiders and the quality of life in the village have grown, despite problems such as drug abuse. The island identity that in the past was based on physical isolation is now mainly the result of keeping a certain social distance towards the outside world. For the villages on Noord-Beveland, the construction of the three dams and bridge has had positive as well as negative consequences. Out-migration, ageing of the local population, and increase in administrative and agricultural scale have put pressure on communal facilities and social life at the village level; integration into the wider society has reduced the involvement of youngsters and newcomers in local affairs. The former inward-looking orientation has been replaced by an outward-looking perspective, while local identities compete with other forms and levels of identification. Forces, however, are now combining to strengthen island identity.

In addition to some agriculture and fish processing industries, most former fishing villages along the coast of the former Zuiderzee have become tourist destinations with nostalgia for times past (Marken, Volendam, Monnickendam and Spakenburg). Urk so far is an exception, in that it still depends primarily on fisheries. On Noord-Beveland, as on the other Zuidhollandse and Zeeuwse Eilanden, agriculture has gradually lost its significance while tourism and nature conservation have become more important. In the future, recreation, tourism and the protection of nature will become decisive factors in determining land use and in maintaining quality of life on the former islands of the Netherlands’ southwest.

Postscript: A return to Islandness?

Time will tell what the future holds for these former islands. However, it is not impossible that the erstwhile status of, in particular, landlocked islands will be restored. The government has recently approved the re-establishment of Wieringen, a former Zuiderzee island that was landlocked in 1930, to its original state by de-poldering the surrounding land. Local authorities want to earmark the new island for top class housing projects and recreation. The expansion of agricultural land is no longer a reason for land reclamation; current cost-benefit analyses do not favour ‘the making of new land’. More and more people want to give nature more space. Agricultural land is being converted into – or according to opponents, ‘sacrificed’ for – nature reserves. This is done by digging holes in dikes, thus allowing for the return of tidal movements, and by building new or heightening old dikes further inland. In Zeeland, the government wants to return to the sea five polders totalling 600 ha as compensation for damage to nature caused by deepening the Westerschelde, the seaway to Antwerp. Farmers, in particular, stubbornly resist de- poldering (de-reclamation) as they do not want to give up land that has been cultivated for centuries. Others in this law-abiding region also protest against what they see as irresponsible plans for their security, and blame nature lovers and environmentalists for forgetting how vulnerable the estuary’s islands have always been, as well as the expected worldwide rise in sea level. Some have proposed changing the motto of the province from Luctor et Emergo (‘Struggle and Emerge’) toLuctor et Submergo (‘Struggle and be Drowned’).

A new direction in land use planning was initiated after excessive flooding in the late 1990s: the giving up of agricultural land along major rivers to enlarge storage capacities for times of heavy rainfall in the rivers’ source areas in Switzerland, Germany, France and Belgium. Due to climatic change, it is expected that rainfall in Western Europe will increase and will fall in larger quantities over shorter periods of time, which may result in heavy floods in downstream areas in years to come.

These examples show that the geography of islands in the Netherlands has not yet reached its final phase. It might be that in the long run, fixed links turn out to be less ‘fixed’ than expected at the time of their construction.