Controversy over Hedwigepolder

Politicians and also TU scientists have opposite views as to whether the Hedwigepolder, close to the border with Belgium, should be flooded partially, fully or not at all.

During the last decade, few subjects were as heavily debated as the Hedwigepolder. In 2005 it was decided that this part in the province of Zeeland should be flooded in order to create space for nature. This was necessary because the Western Scheldt, the gateway to the port of Antwerp, was deepened to allow large cargo ships to reach the harbour, which changed the underwater life dramatically. Consequently, it was decided to enhance the estuary – coastal waters connected to a river and open sea – by flooding the Hedwigepolder as compensation.

The Netherlands and Flanders signed an agreement, with Flanders paying a large part of the costs. However, residents of Zeeland strongly oppose the plan, because it puts a beloved part of their province under water. A new plan was made to flood a smaller area along the Western Scheldt of the Hedwigepolder and two other areas along the Western Scheldt. This issue was recently discussed in the Dutch Parliament. “If we look at the current Dutch and European environmental and law legislation, putting the whole of the Hedwigepolder under water is the best solution for creating an estuary. This will exactly create what needs to be created, an intertidal area, rich in ecosystem services,” says professor of hydraulic engineering, Marcel Stive (Civil Engineering and Geosciences).

“It’s actually a horrible plan and creates vicious nature,” says professor of structural integrity and engineering mechanics, Jaap Schijve (Aerospace Engineering), who was born in Zeeland. “The water of the Western Scheldt is polluted. A study made in 2009 by toxicologist Dr Cor Scheele shows that the estuary will be filthy. The water will bring waste as sediment to the polder.”

Prof. Stive however does not believe that this should be a reason to reject the solution: “It goes without saying that the water will be a bit polluted. But in the last decades the water in our rivers and estuaries has become cleaner.”

So far a final decision has not been made. Last Saturday, the Dutch coalition cabinet fell, and it is expected that a decision will be made after the new elections. “We therefore still hope that an alternative plan is chosen in order to save the Hedwigepolder,” says Prof. Schijve. “In the agreement between Belgium and the Netherlands, it states that alternatives could be looked into.”

Senior advisor at Oranjewoud, Geert Roovers, does not think that this will happen. The Hedwigepolder is one of the case studies for his dissertation on decision-making regarding plans for rivers at the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. “New plans for rivers like the Rhine and IJssel show that a political decision is made relatively fast,” Roovers explains. “After that local parties usually oppose the decision, but this opposition only slows the decision making down. It does not cancel it. Therefore, I expect that the Hedwigepolder will be put under water.”
Roovers states that there are no alternatives, because there is an agreement about a system approach in which the estuary plays a crucial role and can only be created at the Hedwigepolder.

Prof. Stive: “Or we should change the way nature is compensated in the Netherlands. At the moment it is necessary to replace the removed nature with the same kind of nature. There should be a discussion about whether we should keep this policy.”