Depoldering of the Hertogin Hedwigepolder in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen

Edition 31 January, by Seringe S.T. Touray

The depoldering of the Hertogin Hedwigepolder will begin early this year, reported Omroep Zeeland in December 2019. The majority of this polder is in the Netherlands, with a small part in Belgian territory. It is located next to the Prosperpolder, which is half Dutch and half Belgian. Interested parties in the soon-to-begin project were briefed about the plans of the depoldering at a meeting held in Kieldrecht, Belgium, while protests by action groups persist.

According to Omroep Zeeland, the meeting did not see any opposition, as only genuinely interested parties were in attendance. However, the strength of opposition voices could not be ignored. A visibly emotional farmer, Leon de Theije (66), is one of these critical voices. De Theije, who has agricultural plots in the Eastern part of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, and has worked in the area his whole life, expresses, like many, strong disapproval of the depoldering, reported newspaper AD.

De Theije appeared at an information meeting at the Prosperpolder youth centre, across the border. As his farm is located on the edge of the Hedwigepolder, parts of his properties have already been destroyed in the early stages of depoldering, which started with the felling of trees. According to De Theije, having been born on the farm, and now seeing for the first time the area bereft of trees, “hurts” in many ways. For one, he is not ready to retire just yet, and he is not sure whether there will be opportunities for his business in the future.

The Hedwigepolder was created before the Eighty Year’s War in the Netherlands. During the war, in 1584, Dutch soldiers pierced the intact dikes for strategic reasons, resulting in the Saeftinghe polder disappearing under water. Over the centuries, much land was reclaimed, and the Hedwigepolder was the last area to again become a polder, in 1907. Still, parts of the land remain under water, and are known as the ‘Drowned Land of Saeftinghe’.

A 2005 treaty between the Netherlands and Belgium set forth that the Hedwigepolder would be depoldered and again be linked to the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe, which would also be reconnected to the adjacent Prosperpolder. The aim was creating more room for the Westerschelde and thus create nature compensation. In 2018, a committee led by Ed Nijpels, former VVD politician and former Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment, confirmed that flooding the polder would be by far the cheapest and most effective way to achieve nature compensation.

However, the project might face a setback due to concerns that the site might be contaminated with PFAS, a group of harmful manmade chemicals. As a result, research is now being conducted to determine whether there are not too many of these artificial chemicals in the soil – the end result of which will determine the future of the depoldering project. Giving that the national government recently introduced a measure for dealing with PFAS in earthworks, road works and waterworks, the research must ensure that PFAS standards are not exceeded. This study, based on strict standards, is carried out by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. If the standards are met, everyone involved in the project can get started, while a negative result will cause delays.

According to Omroep Zeeland, the first step in the depoldering process is expected in March 2020, if the outcome of the PFAS study does not cause any hindrance. Involved parties, such as Monique Ekkebus from the Province of Zeeland, who is in favour of depoldering and who expects a favourable outcome from the PFAS study, states that the provincial government is are fully engaged in the implementation, and that the contractors working on the project are scheduled to begin this spring. The first activities, after preparing the ground for construction, will consist of digging trenches and channels to enable depoldering. The water will flow in when everything is complete.

Ekkebus, representing the Province of Zeeland at the meeting in Kieldrecht, talked in detail about the major job to come, including the aforementioned digging of trenches and construction of a ring dike to protect the surrounding area against incoming water once the depoldering is complete. On the Belgian side, that dike, built in part with soil released by digging trenches, has already been constructed.

Once the project has started, for a few years the polder will look like a building site – but in twenty years or so, a beautiful new nature area should have been created.