Are you Prepared for Flooding?

Amsterdam, April 2011

First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Floods are the most common of all natural disasters. They cause more damage than all other natural disasters combined. In the Netherlands large parts of the country are below sea level, which makes the country very vulnerable to flooding. Global warming has caused sea levels to rise, and sooner or later the Netherlands will flood again. This flood protection manual provides practical information to prepare you and your family against a flood. So you will be better prepared for future scenarios.

How the water has changed the Netherlands throughout history. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

In 2005 hurricane Katrina caused a major flooding in New Orleans. The disaster took the lives of 1,833 people and caused a property damage of $108 billion. If such a flood would happen in the Netherlands, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, its effects would be much more devastating. Despite this high risk, 80% of the Dutch do not worry about the risks of flooding. This manual was founded in an earlier research about the relation the Dutch have with water and climate change.

Dutch flag evolution in times of climate change. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Water is your friend

Until recently, the Dutch government did not actively inform its citizens about the risks of flooding. Campaigns were launched presenting water ’as a friend’, to be enjoyed for recreational purposes like water sports. While countries like the U.K., Japan, and the U.S. provide detailed online information and free leaflets about how to prepare for flooding, in the Netherlands there was no such information available. In his dissertation ‘Flood Preparedness’ from 2010, Teun Terpstra from Twente University describes the lack of communication about flood risk by the Dutch government, and why general disaster preparation campaigns do not work. In order for citizens to take action, disaster risk communication needs a sense of urgency.

Flood instructions, First Dutch Flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

First Flood Manual

Since the Dutch government was not informing citizens, I decided to create the first Dutch flood manual. The manual contains basic flood preparedness information taken from official flood warning documents in the U.K., and local Dutch sources. Besides a chapter about flood preparedness and what to do during a flood, the manual also includes a speculative chapter about a world where the land is permanently flooded. A new infrastructure is proposed, where the ‘country formerly known as the Netherlands’ becomes a giant windmill park with advertising billboards, so money can still be made from tourism and water sports.

Life after the Flood, First Dutch flood manual. Design: Ruben Pater, 2011.

Survival is a False Idol

Having a flood manual at home does not protect you from a flood, nor does the Drone Survival Guide save you from drone attacks. Survival as a narrative is often used to distract attention from the root causes of these dangers. Instructing citizens how to survive a flooding is cheaper than stopping rising sea levels by cutting down CO2 emissions and slowing down economic growth. This shifts the responsibility of global collective problems to the individual. If you are not prepared for a flood, you are to blame when you drown, and not industries and governments that keep polluting and let sea levels rise. By using the survival narrative I try to use this same sense of urgency to talk about the underlying environmental and socio-economic problems. The flood manual is a strategy to have people discuss climate change and how this will affect our way of life if we do not act today, and in Holland flooding is the most urgent way to do this.

Flood Desk Enkhuizen, Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen. Ruben Pater, 2012.

A New Collectivity

Neoliberalism has shifted responsiblity from the state to the individual by privatizing critical infrastructure and cutting public services. While the dangers of global issues like climate change and income inequality are growing, governments no longer accept responsibility for collective well-being, but instead emphasize the power of the citizens’ own agency. A narrative is presented that if only citizens buy more energy-saving lights and water saving shower heads, climate change can be averted. One factory uses same the amount of energy of a large city, and unless governments cap emissions to a sustainable level and promote green energy on a large scale, the effects of climate change cannot be solved by using energy saving lightbulbs alone. The complex global issues of our time demand a new kind of collective responsibility that supersedes the actions of individuals or even countries.

Flood Desk. Zuiderzeemuseum, Enkhuizen. Ruben Pater, 2012.

After the Flood

Between the IJsselmeer and the lowlands of Noord-Holland lies the old fishing town of Enkhuizen. This area has been threatened by floods, and this is where the Zuiderzeemuseum asked me to create an installation as part of an exhibition about water. I chose to transform a building into a flood information desk. The location of a fictional government agency that informs citizens about flooding. However the flood information desk would be abandoned due to flood risk, and a voice-over instructed visitors to wait for instructions. Everyone knows the feeling of powerlessness when a government institution is unavailable, and this was a way of addressing how governments retreats from the public domain and shifts responsibility to citizens with devastating consequences.

Visit the project website if you wish to order a manual or to find out more about the project. Dutch only.

Bibliography

Terpstra, Teun. ‘Flood Preparedness’. University of Twente, January 15, 2010.
‘What to do before, during and after a flood’, Environment Agency, November 2010.