Column: Groningen

Never start a column with an anecdote about your grandmother, my writing teacher once told me, but here goes… My grandmother (1914-2015) came from Groningen, where the people are as tough as nails.

One day a car stopped in her street, its deafening music echoing across the entire neighbourhood. At the traffic lights, the driver – with shaven head and a jogging suit –opened his window and emptied his ashtray onto the pavement. My grandmother could simply have walked past and avoided it, but she didn’t. She bent down and used one hand to wipe the ash into the other.

She then knocked on the driver’s window. Knock-knock. Taken aback, the man wound open his window, staring at the old dear. “You forgot something,” said my grandmother, tipping the ash into the man’s lap. I inherited some of this Groningen pride from my grandmother, together with the Groningen pain. The land being pumped dry for our natural gas, the earthquakes and cracked buildings foisted on the Groningen people in return, the dismal economic prospects and exodus to the Randstad.

But, as a Delft alumnus, I wonder this: what can engineers do for the people of Groningen? I read an inspirational article by nature journalist René Didde on this very subject: the dikes between Eemshaven and Delfzijl are located in the earthquake risk zone and are being given a makeover. Local government and engineers from Alterra, Wageningen UR, are seizing this opportunity to innovate. They are testing what is known as a sludge engine (‘slibmotor’). Between a double dike, the tides are given free rein and deposit sludge that can be used to raise the land level. It is a much better idea than buying in clay from Lithuania and Estonia, as the Netherlands currently does to reinforce its dikes. Lightened of its load, the water then flows to brackish agricultural land, where algae and samphire grow.

Nature has also been taken into account, with special pools for fish and foraging areas for birds. Cycle lanes and paths for nature lovers complete the picture. A map of the area shows that this pilot project is taking place literally a stone’s throw away from a gas exploration site. It is easy to be cynical about these things. But let us look at it positively for a change: maybe it is actually possible to successfully bring together all of these opposing interests.  Perhaps there are already plans afoot for a Delft/Groningen research group to explore innovative construction in earthquake zones? I would welcome the idea.

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