Welcome to EH Resources the home of the Exploring Environmental History Podcast.
Throughout history, humans have been affected by the natural environment, but they have also been agents of environmental change. Historians are now providing fascinating insights into the relations between humans and their environments in the past. This website explores the ways in which people have interacted with their environments in the past. Read more >>
The relief of Leiden, 1574. Note the large area inundated for military purposes between Rotterdam and Leiden. Source: Wikimedia Commons
For centuries, the Dutch have fought against their arch-enemy: water. But, during the Dutch War of Independence in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch found an ally in their arch enemy. Their struggle against Spain seemed almost hopeless because the rebels were facing the best trained, supplied and funded European army of that era. As the underdog, they turned to water and used it as a weapon against the Spanish by planning and carrying out a number military inundations, intentionally flooding enormous swaths of land to stop or even defeat the enemy.
However, it is possible that during the Dutch Wars of Independence the province of Holland could have been permanently flooded and lost to the North Sea. The Spanish, hurt by the military inundations, hatched a secret plan that aimed at defeating the Dutch by turning their watery ally against them. Luckily, this plan was never carried out. While Holland survived, the Dutch constructed a line of fortifications and waterworks to facilitate military inundations, which became known as the Dutch Water Line. This militarization of the Dutch landscape had profound long term political, social and environmental consequences for the province and the region.
Episode 77 of the Exploring Environmental History podcast explores these social, political and environmental issues with Robert Tiegs, Adjunct Professor at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada.
Scholten’s potato starch factory at Foxhol around 1930. Note the large geometric fields and straight canals. (Image: Collection Veenkoloniaal Museum Veendam).
In the mid-19th century the first potato starch and strawboard factories were established in the Groningen Peat Colonies (Veenkoloniën) in the Northern Netherlands. The number of factories increased to more than thirty by 1900. These industries brought jobs but also water pollution and stench caused by the release of thousands of cubic metres of waste water into the canals. For most of the 20th century pollution was not an issue but the industry believed that large amounts of useful substances were “wasted” by dumping it with the waste water into water courses. Experiments were set up to extract minerals and other substances for the production of fodder or fertiliser. None of these efforts resulted in solving the water pollution problem of the Groningen Peat Colonies. The pollution persisted until the latter quarter of the 20th century.
Episode 76 of Exploring Environmental History investigates the origins and extent of the water pollution in Groningen and why it took more than a century before the problem was solved. It highlights why the early experiments failed and the consequences of this for water quality in the province of Groningen.
When European Settlers arrived in Western Australia they brought their own conceptions of water security and agriculture with them. Initially the land around what is now Perth was presented as a green and pleasant land. But the reality was very different.
The water supply of south Western Australia fluctuates throughout the year and as a result, ground water resources and their demand rise and fall in response to prevailing patterns of rainfall. The flow of rivers varies according to the amount of rain the Westerlies bring to the region, leading past engineers to classify the region around Perth as a ‘hydraulically difficult country’. This tough reality complicates agricultural production in the region and turns Perth’s suburban green spaces and gardens into a political hot potato. Add climate change into this already fraught mix, and it is expected that the current drying trend will contribute to further desiccate this already dry land. The title of a recent book about the water history of Western Australia, “Running out?”, seems to refer to this uncertain future.
However, “Running out?” authored by Historian Ruth Morgan of Monash University in Melbourne, is by no means a story of doom and gloom. It argues that Western Australians have a strong sense of their vulnerability to water scarcity and climate variability and this has long fueled environmental anxieties. To understand these real or perceived perceptions of water vulnerability, Morgan’s book places those anxieties in their ever changing historical contexts. This edition of the podcast explores the history of these water anxieties with Ruth Morgan and asks the question – what lessons can be learned from the water history of Western Australia.
Thomas Fulljames’ watercolour of his plan for a Severn Barrage, ca. 1849. Source: Wikimedia Commons
In recent decades the interest in renewable energy from sources such as wind, solar and tidal power has steadily increased. However, this interest in harnessing “mother nature’s” energy is not new. Over the past 160 years the Severn estuary has been the focus of numerous proposals to provide a transport route over the estuary, improve navigation and to exploit its large tidal range to generate electricity. As a potential source of predictable, renewable and carbon-free power with the potential to supply up to 5 per cent of current UK electricity needs, such interest is understandable. Despite its potential, the latest proposals, like all its predecessors in the past century and a half, have failed to secure government and public support to build a barrage in the Severn estuary.
How is it that a barrage still has not gone beyond the drawing board? And why are companies, scientists and politicians still willing to invest time, effort and money in further proposals? Alexander Portch, a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Bristol University, investigates these two questions. Although the past 150 years is the main focus, Alexander also investigates earlier efforts to harness tidal power of the Severn and how the activities of people whose lives were bound up with the estuary’s daily tides have shaped the estuary and lands bordering it. This episode of the podcast features an interview with Alexander Portch and his work on the history of the Severn Estuary.