After the flood come torrents of abuse

THE Libe cafe at Boven-Hardinxveld may look a little upmarket with its fancy purple counter tops and colour co-ordinated modern fittings, but the smell of chip fat and fried eggs gives it away as your average working class greasy spoon, made just that bit more plush by Dutch affluence. Despite the fancy appearance, the Libe is still the kind of place where locals from shipyards and factories gather before work to suck down black coffee and moan about the government. And during these days of floods, with no work to go to, sitting at thecafe and moaning is what the customers of the Libe do best.

Boven-Hardinxveld, a 30-minute drive east of Rotterdam and on the westernmost edge of the flood danger zone, was supposed to have been evacuated.

About 4,000 people heeded orders to leave, taking with them their furniture and, in some cases, their curtains and blinds. But 400 others refused to go and fought the authorities for their right to stay. When angry and hungry, they all shuffle off to theLibe. Looking out of the big window at the front of the cafe which sits on top of a dike with a grandstand view of the swollen river, one man on Friday morning took a sip of bitter coffee and shook his head. "Screw the government. I know this river better than them,'' he said angrily. "Nothing is going to happen to the people who live on the dike.

"If the idiots in government are so worried about us, why didn't they strengthen the dikes before this? Why do they wait until trouble comes to panic and then bother us with their stupid decisions?''

The outburst was greeted with nods of approval from his fellow refuseniks in the cafe. Time may yet prove them right.

The emergency in the Netherlands appears to be over. The water rose, some towns got soaked, but the dikes held and last night the Interior Minister, Hans Dijkstal, gave 170,000 people permission to go back home from 8am today, leaving just the few thousand people from around the Boven-Hardinxveld district awaiting permission to return. But as the floodwaters recede, they are leaving behind not just weakened dikes, but angry citizens, looking for someone to blame for their week of trials and tribulations.

Dutch newspapers last week were full of stories with headlines such as "Searching for Scapegoats''. People waiting in evacuation centres and working on the dikes during the worst days of the crisis never missed an opportunity to offer a theory for who was at fault.

The main target of popular anger has been government bureaucrats and over-zealous environmentalists, who have led a campaign to delay plans to reinforce thousands of kilometres of dikes and canals.

The struggle for dry feet is as old as the Netherlands itself. More than half the country and two-thirds of the population are below sea level. Much of that land has been reclaimed from the sea, beginning in the13th century, although the building of dikes goes back to 500 BC. Today a complex network of dikes and canals divides the country into intricate patterns of ditches and barriers, which separate the lowlying lands from rivers and, especially, from seawater.

But in the 1990s the threat is no longer the North Sea but the spring thaws in the Alps which pour into the Rhine and washacross Europe, gathering force and filth. The Germans and French have shortened the course of rivers feeding into the Netherlands, contributing to the problem. In 1993, after the last time the waters of the Rhine put eastern areas of the country under water, the debate between those recommending higher dikes and those who saw the plans of the engineers as a threat to the country's wetlands reached fever pitch.

The engineers argued that "safety comes first'' but the environmentalists, whose voiceswere echoed at government level, countered that taller and wider dikes would cut across the country like giant airport runways. Wetlands would be filled in and houses bulldozed.

Public opinion was sharply divided. In the end, the government decided to continue studying the situation with the aim of reinforcing the dikes in 2008. It is that decision and the political campaign that led up to it that are the targets of popular anger today. In some towns - such as Gorinchem - Green party activists fled the area after they were threatened by people who had been evacuated.

"If the government hadn't listened to those environmentalists then we would not have had to leave our homes,'' said Jan Menting, who was evacuated from Millingen, east of Nijmegen. "There are people who say, `Let's flood the Hague and then we'll see whatthose Greens and liberal ministers think.'''

Sensing the shift in the public mood, the government has been quick to respond. Dutch ministers announced on Thursday that all weakened dikes would be shored up in the next 12 months and all remaining barriers would be strengthened by the year 2000. The plan was greeted with scepticism in the Libe.

"It sounds to me as stupid and unrealistic as the plans to delay,'' said one woman.

Further up river a few days before - when the crisis was at its worst - Ben Wasser stood knee-deep in water and loaded sandbags into a hole in a dike which was in danger of collapse.

"It's too simple to blame the enviromentalists,'' he said. "This is not just a Dutch problem but a European problem. We Dutch can continue to make stronger dikes but unless the surrounding countries stop straightening the rivers, we will still have problems.We are a co-operative people, but we also like to complain.''

Leading article, page 22

Firsthand, page 24

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