EnglishGreen criminologyLanguagePolicyThemeWater, risk and governance at the Delta: a criminological exploration

Water, risk and governance at the Delta: a criminological exploration

Lieselot Bisschop & Karin van Wingerde

Recently, several local and regional newspapers in the Netherlands reported that over 30 Dutch municipalities require citizens to disconnect drainpipes from the sewer system and collect rainwater in separate barrels. This aims to prevent flood damage to homes and households to counter the increased chance of heavy rain fall and flooding due to climate change. With a very large part of the country at or below sea level, the Netherlands is long known for their water management skills. The Dutch built an extensive system of water defenses and Dutch experts consult on water governance projects throughout the world. Much of the urgency of contemporary risk assessment and water regulation in the Netherlands, however, goes back to one of the biggest natural disasters of the 20th century.

In 1953, a heavy storm caused the North Sea to rise to almost 5 meters above normal sea levels. Dykes appeared to be unable to resist the water, causing massive flooding of large parts of the country. This disaster cost the lives of 1,836 people and damaged infrastructure, killed livestock, and destroyed properties.

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Picture 1: Nieuwe Tonge after the 1953 disaster (Goeree Overflakkee, Zuid- Holland) (Photo credit: Dutch National Archive)

Soon after the disaster, extensive construction projects including storm barriers, dams and sluices were developed to keep the country safe from the water. These Delta Works prevented future flooding, but also improved the agricultural fresh water supply, encouraged mobility between the peninsulas in Zeeland and the rest of the country, improved inland shipping, and encouraged the creation of nature reserves and recreational areas.

Also in other parts of the world, water plays a prominent role in governance. One of those places is the Southern part of the state of Louisiana (USA), which we were both lucky to visit earlier this year. For hundreds of years, the landscape of this state has been shaped by the Mississippi delta. Several heavy floods in the early 20th century led to a large scale flood control system that surrounded the river by levees, effectively diminishing the number of floods that occurred throughout the state of Louisiana. At the same time however, this flood control system changed the flow of the river, forever impacting the ecosystem of the wetlands that depended on regular flooding of the land. This endangered the livelihood of many crabbing and fishing dependent communities and increased subsidence in coastal Louisiana.

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Picture 2: The Mississippi River, New Orleans (Photo credit: Karin van Wingerde)

Despite the leveed Mississippi, the Southern part of Louisiana is not yet free from floods. They are still very much at risk for hurricanes. One of the hurricanes that is still well remembered by both the inhabitants of Southern Louisiana and many people across the world is Katrina. In 2005, Katrina flooded the towns and villages throughout the bayou as well the city of New Orleans, resulting in over 1,200 deaths and over 100 million USD in damages, making it one of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in US history. Due to breaches in New Orleans’ hurricane surge protection about 80 percent of the city was flooded and remained so for weeks. The remnants of that are still visible today in the poorest parts of the city where several houses are still boarded up from Katrina damage.

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Picture 3: Boarded-up house on Annette Street, New Orleans (Photo credit: Lieselot Bisschop)

The state and federal government’s response to Katrina has been called a governance failure and one that disproportionately affected vulnerable populations. Critical criminologists defined it as a state crime because of the state’s inaction towards victims (Faust & Kauzlarich 2008). This shows how even natural disasters can have criminological relevance.

Critical criminologists defined the government’s response to Katrina as a state crime because of the state’s inaction towards victims. This shows how even natural disasters can have criminological relevance.

Several government agencies share the responsibility for flood risk mitigation in the Mississippi delta. One of the big protection systems is the Morganza to the Gulf which is meant to reduce hurricane and storm damage risk for people, property and marshland ecosystems. This state and locally funded project is a 150 km system of levees, floodgates, pump stations, road gates, and a lock complex on the Houma Navigation Canal. This system is not without controversy because several at risk communities are left unprotected. With current rates of sea level rise and land erosion, the Gulf of Mexico is likely to rise approximately 1 m by 2100, flooding everything in Louisiana that is outside the levee protection system. Not only is that a threat to Louisiana’s 2 million inhabitants, but it is also a threat to a transportation hub (the ports are vital for 31 states) and energy corridor (the state is home to half of the US oil refineries) which are vital to the US at large.

Cost-benefit analyses however determined that the costs would be too great to include these communities, especially in face of the likelihood of about half of Southern Louisiana disappearing into the sea in the next 50 years. This is precisely why water risk governance is a relevant criminological issue and why it is increasingly becoming part of the criminological research agenda (Brisman, McClanahan & South 2016): the impacts of climate change – sea level rise being one of them – can lead to unequally distributed risk and harm, mostly affecting vulnerable populations (McGarrell & Gibbs 2014).

This is precisely why water risk governance is a relevant criminological issue and why it is increasingly becoming part of the criminological research agenda: the impacts of climate change – sea level rise being one of them – can lead to unequally distributed risk and harm, mostly affecting vulnerable populations

The Netherlands is considered an example country for flood risk mitigation and adaptation. A lot depends, however, on the amount of money that can be invested and on how much risk the governance system is willing to assume. When the estimated sea level rise or storm level surge is 1 meter, the Netherlands is likely to construct a levee that can handle three times that. Budgetary restraints in Southern Louisiana are likely to limit that to the minimum. The result of the risk assessment might be the same, but it does not necessarily imply a similar governance decision. The causes of and responsibilities for environmental harm – whether man-made or natural – are therefore a relevant criminological issue as are the differential impacts of (water risk) governance policies.

About the author: Lieselot Bisschop

I am an Assistant Professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam. My areas of interest and expertise include environmental crime, social harm, organizational crime, environmental governance and environmental justice. I previously worked as a postdoctoral fellow of the Research Fund Flanders at Ghent University (Belgium) (2015-2017), as an Assistant Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (New York, USA) (2014-2015) and as a researcher at Ghent University (2007 until 2013). I also work as an assistant editor of the European Journal of Policing Studies.

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