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Wageningen University & Research: Seventy years after the Great Flood of 1953, salinisation is once again a hot topic

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Seventy years ago, in 1953, the North Sea flooded the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands, and the salt water left much of land unsuitable for farming. What many will not know, is that a predecessor of Wageningen Environmental Research was established in the aftermath of this disaster: the International Institute for Land Reclamation & Land Improvement (ILRI) was created to collect and share knowledge on how to make saline land fertile again. WUR still does a lot of important work on water management and salinisation, and with the current climate challenges, this is once again a hot topic. WUR is very keen to regain its role as an important hub in this water management issue.

After the Great Flood, it soon became apparent that there was already a wealth of knowledge available on how to make flooded and salinated land fertile and productive again. This required adequate drainage and salt leaching, among others. The US Kellogg Foundation was impressed by how quickly the land in Zeeland was restored, and decided to provide a financial injection of 1.25 million guilder (around 567,225 euro) to enable the establishment of the ILRI. “We need this knowledge to improve global food production,” they wrote in their annual report (in post-war 1953, food was in very short supply). The ILRI was created in 1955 and fell under the Ministry of Agriculture. It was later merged with Alterra, and Alterra became Wageningen Environmental Research.

During those decades, the ILRI accumulated a great deal of knowledge in the field of irrigation and drainage. Agricultural planners and engineers, soil scientists, agronomists and socio-economists; all these experts from different backgrounds came together to plan and implement irrigation and drainage systems. “It became a hub for all the professionals working in this field,” says Catharien Terwisscha Scheltinga, who joined the ILRI just before the merger with Alterra, and still works on saline agriculture at WUR.

International cooperation: from Egypt to Bangladesh
“The ILRI developed into a very international institute focussing on applied research and consultancy work,” Terwisscha continues. “It was not just a matter of knowing how, but more importantly of spreading knowledge and training new experts. The most important instrument for that was the International Course on Land Drainage.” This drainage course became world famous. Hundreds of agriculture and water specialists from 93 different countries came to Wageningen to attend the six-week course. “The beauty of this course is that each new group of participants examines what is needed in practice today and what examples exist elsewhere in the world.”

A good example of this international cooperation is Egypt. “We discussed how to establish effective land and water management practices in Egypt together with Egyptian and Dutch government representatives and other experts,” says Terwisscha. “Due to the lack of water, they need to find smart ways to grow food there. The partnership began in 1976 and still exists today. It has since expanded to other African countries.”

She herself is currently doing research on salinisation for WUR in Bangladesh. “The problem of salinisation is increasing there and penetrating further inland. At the same time, we expect farmers will want to increase their herds of cows to produce more milk. Cows cannot drink salt water and need pasture to graze. Together with our Bangladeshi partners, we want to consider opportunities and solutions for the future, today.”

Working on the agriculture of the future
Salinisation, drainage and irrigation are all important issues for the future, and WUR can once again form an important hub in this chain. “We are working hard to collect and organise ILRI’s knowledge,” Terwisscha says, just before she heads back to Bangladesh. “And to establish new international connections, so we can identify problem areas and explore what the agriculture of the future could look like there. We can then share that knowledge with stakeholders so they can anticipate future developments. Fortunately, much of the ILRI’s knowledge is still contained within WUR. However, we really want to develop a more integrated approach to this, because these are complex problems. We need economists, but also plant physiologists. We must not use this complexity as an excuse to postpone, nor get bogged down by it, because the time to deal with climate change is now.”

Does the Netherlands, and more particularly Wageningen, still have the most knowledge of salinisation, as it did after the Great Flood? “No,” Terwisscha says. “We are not the best, but we are definitely an important hub where the stakeholders come together. We also work with the policymakers, and cooperate with the private sector to bring about change.”

Great Flood museum to play a role
The Great Flood museum (Watersnoodmuseum) in Zeeland will also help to bring together the stakeholders in this theme. A number of years ago, the museum was officially recognised as a national knowledge centre, and WUR is to share ILRI’s archive with them. “We want to collect knowledge about the climate and – more importantly – share it with the public,” says museum director Siemco Louwerse. “We are already collaborating with the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute), and now WUR is joining the partnership too.” Louwerse was also unaware that the ILRI was created after the Great Flood, with Kellogg’s help. “That’s really fascinating. You often see in times of crisis that there is resilience and that new things arise. Of course, after the Great Flood, the obvious examples were the Delta Works and the rise of international cooperation – and now this great story about the origins of Wageningen Environmental Research.”

Louwerse envisages an exhibition, lectures and workshops to share ILRI’s knowledge. “We are keen to do this, because the current climate transition will only succeed if we can get everyone on board. We receive 100,000 visitors a year here, and everyone is always impressed and goes away more aware of the importance of careful water management. That is why we also want to give attention to the future in our museum. There is already an impressive digital wall with live feeds of floods happening all over the world next to the museum exit. Not a day goes by without a flood happening somewhere.” The museum also wants to bring together policy thinking about sea level rise, Delta’s worldwide and strengthening the Delta Works. “We will shortly be organising a day about the delta of the future. We have a large network we can call on to participate. There are already plenty of plans; now we need to start thinking about implementing them. I think it’s extraordinary that when you fly over this region, you can sometimes still see discolouration that indicates salt residues. The past is never far away.”