Baukje Kothuis, Wiebe Bijker and Trudes Heems Baukje Kothuis, Wiebe Bijker and Trudes Heems Sacha Ruland

The dry feet of the Dutch

Written by  Jolien Linssen Wednesday, 20 February 2013 15:13
When Hurricane Sandy caused severe damage in the Caribbean, Mid-Atlantic and north-eastern United States last October, heads turned once again towards the Netherlands. Our country's reputation in the field of flood safety is more than a matter of national pride; it has been unparalleled since the construction of the Delta Works. With strikingly dry feet for the past decades, have we won the battle against the water? Not quite, according to Trudes Heems and Baukje Kothuis. The common belief that we have been saved once and for all is a myth, they argue in their joint PhD thesis.

In their research, Heems and Kothuis analyse the manner in which the Dutch cope with the threat of flooding from a sociocultural perspective. "We were going through our collection of newspaper articles and stumbled upon the public communication campaign The Netherlands Lives with Water", Heems recounts. "A surprising title, as water had never been an issue for us, nor for anyone we knew. So we started to ask ourselves: do we actually live with water?”

Heems and Kothuis, who had met while studying at the Amsterdam Faculty of Social Sciences in 2000, felt that a PhD would be the perfect way to "sharpen their minds" next to their daily work of running their own businesses. "We wanted to conduct scientific research in its purest form, without external pressure”, says Kothuis. “So we decided not to contact a supervisor until we had finished about 70% of the work." But when they finally set off for Maastricht to meet up with professor of Technology and Society Wiebe Bijker, a surprise awaited them.


"I was immediately impressed by their energy and discipline", Bijker says. "But I had my doubts as to whether they had already completed most of the research. I kept that to myself, though, because I didn’t want to temper their enthusiasm."

It was decided that Bijker would be their supervisor, together with professor of Political Science and Public Policy Maarten Hajer from Amsterdam and professor of Coastal Engineering Marcel Stive from Delft, who is the successor of Bijker's father. "I was very excited when Wiebe told us that he’d never met students who wrote as well as we did", Baukje recalls. "But then he added: 'Now we’re going to turn your work into a PhD project'. That came as something of a shock."

Heems and Kothuis needed to gain more in-depth knowledge. To fathom how the Netherlands has dealt with the threat of flooding since 1953, they set up a discourse analysis – which at the time was still "a pretty mystical area" to them. Heems: "It truly is an academic handicraft, but very exciting. You start working on your data and then the richness of the material reveals itself."

In this manner, they discovered three underlying patterns, or discourses, that influence the way in which we have perceived water and our relationship with it since 1953. In the first two decades after the North Sea flood, water was an enemy that had to be curbed by all means. Following the success of the Delta Works, our safety was increasingly taken for granted and water took on a friendlier character. Finally, from the mid-nineties onwards, the authorities have again been stressing the threats posed by water. This has led them to expect more water awareness and risk-aware behaviour in society – an expectation often greeted with reluctance.

"This can be explained by the existence of a national safety myth of dry feet”, says Kothuis. “Citizens have come to believe that the government is not only responsible for guaranteeing flood safety, but also able to do this at all times. As soon as they are confronted with measures that include the acceptance of risk, you see emotional reactions. This is exacerbated by the fact that various authorities communicate different messages about water. Citizens are said to be safe, but at the same time they should prepare for a severe flood disaster. What we propose is a new discourse that focuses on acceptance of the vulnerability caused by living in a delta." 


Vulnerability is not only a research theme for Heems and Kothuis; it has also been key to the success of their cooperation. "At the outset, we agreed to be honest with each other at all times", says Heems. "You have to dare to be vulnerable,” Kothuis adds, "and be convinced that working together will enrich the end product. Of course we disagreed at times, but that only stimulated our research. To analyse what was at stake, we had to delve even more deeply into the subject matter."
"All in all it’s a great accomplishment", according to Bijker. "Doing a joint PhD requires a lot of you emotionally. It touches upon fundamental issues like: Who am I and who do I want to be? How much space do I need and do I allow the other into it? I’m certain that most people wouldn’t be able to do it. Working with them was a special experience." And that feeling is mutual, Heems explains: "We were very privileged to have Wiebe as our supervisor. He combines an enormous amount of knowledge with the ability to offer a lot of freedom. Our meetings with him were something to look forward to."  
"I’m pleased to hear that", Bijker laughs. "As Trudes and Baukje were external PhD students, we didn’t see each other very often. So when we met, we needed to get to the bottom of things straight away. Their commercial backgrounds gave our conversations a whole different dynamic. They approached the subject without having the standard academic training, which forced me to make underlying assumptions more explicit. And now that they’re done, they’ve not only written a great thesis but also carefully marketed it. At the moment, their work is having a great impact at the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment and the Association of Regional Water Authorities. That’s something most PhD students can only dream of." 

Baukje Kothuis (1963) studied physical education and took courses in journalism and creative writing. She has travelled the world as the owner of a travel agency, publishing house and communications advice agency.

Trudes Heems (1964) studied performing arts before starting her own business. She has assisted various companies in the fields of communication, marketing and organisational advice.
While working on their PhD, Heems and Kothuis set up the scientific research and consultancy business WATERWORKS in 2008 ( They currently combine this with postdoctoral research at Delft University of Technology.

Wiebe Bijker (1951) trained as an engineer in applied physics in Delft and obtained his PhD in Twente. He has been professor of Technology and Society at Maastricht University since 1994. Bijker’s research focuses on the relations between technology, society and science, with a focus on political and normative issues.

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