Wadden Sea as a lifebuoy for Holwerd

Known mainly as the departure point for the ferry to the island of Ameland, the village of Holwerd in the Dutch province of Friesland has been beset in recent years by declining employment and a growing number of vacant properties. Determined to turn the tide, a group of local residents launched the ‘Holwerd by the Sea’ project in hopes of restoring the historical connection between their village and the beloved Wadden Sea.

The village of Holwerd is separated from the Wadden Sea by a sloping green seawall. But that hasn’t always been the case. As Marco Verbeek, deputy chairman of the Holwerd aan Zee (‘Holwerd by the Sea’) Foundation explains: "Holwerd used to be situated directly by the Wadden Sea. That’s what made the village into a trading hub, and with such a booming local economy there were always plenty of jobs for everyone. Sadly, however, we lost our link with the sea after the seawall got built."

Vacant properties

In recent decades Holwerd has been plagued by many of the same woes as numerous other villages and cities outside the central Randstad conurbation, including economic decline, property vacancies and job losses. Verbeek: "We have watched our local economy go into something of a tailspin over the past few years." A group of residents eager to save their community came up with the blueprint for Holwerd aan Zee. They believe that if the link with the Wadden Sea is restored, this will attract tourists and boost the town’s leisure industry, which would help to turn the local economy around.

Ecological revival

Verbeek explains that one way of re-establishing the link with the water would be to breach the dike, creating a body of water that would effectively form a buffer between Holwerd and the Wadden Sea. A research study commissioned by the project initiators has shown that this lagoon, with its brackish water, could become a valuable nature reserve, with salt marshes, muddy banks, shorebirds and eel. "It would allow the area’s former ecological habitat to be restored. An added advantage of breaching the dike is that the water from the buffer lake can be used to flush out the waterway to the island of Ameland, which is gradually filling up with sediment." At present, this waterway is routinely dredged to the tune of roughly eight million euros a year.

Cost-benefit analysis

The initiators expect that, in restoring the link with the sea, the Holwerd aan Zee project will prove a powerful boost to the local economy, as well as enriching the area’s ecological value and improving the overall quality of life. While that sounds like a rock-solid case for implementing their vision, it was important to quantify the benefits of their plan. Verbeek: "As residents of this area, we decided we wanted to commission a study ourselves – that way, we could keep maximum control over the process, the timeframe, and so on. We knew that conducting a social cost-benefit analysis would be a crucial part of our process in that it would allow us to demonstrate both the cost and the feasibility of the plan to external parties. But we also knew that this would be extremely costly." The foundation decided to enlist the help of the local Rabobank Noordoost Friesland.

Close collaboration

"It was clear that a cost-benefit analysis was an essential first step for the Holwerd aan Zee project to get off the ground," says Klaske Miedema-Jensma, an adviser at Rabobank Noordoost Friesland specialised in cooperatives, and herself a Holwerd resident. "The type of study they were looking to commission – which ended up being a joint effort between consultancy firms Witteveen + Bos and Rho Adviseurs voor Leefruimte – would take a full year and cost 50,000 euros. We carefully reviewed and discussed their loan application with our members council and decided to green-light it. We feel the Holwerd aan Zee project is a perfect example of community initiative, which we can only encourage. It’s a genuine grassroots effort, which came about through close collaboration between local residents, farmers, land owners, local authorities, and various businesses and institutions. People in the area are very excited about the plan – it gives them hope for a better future, and young people now feel there might be opportunities for them to remain in Holwerd after all and buy a home there. Our bank is happy to use our cooperative dividend to help make this happen."

Value as a cooperative

Verbeek tells us that the research study has since been completed and that its findings are positive. "The study shows that our plans are viable from both a technical and a financial standpoint. That’s the kind of hard evidence that will stand us in good stead in our negotiations with the central government and others to secure finance for our project. We couldn’t be happier that Rabobank Noordoost Friesland was willing to foot the bill for the study. That level of involvement is highly unusual, and shows that they play an important role in the community. Of course, I’m aware that the bank itself also has an interest in building a strong local economy and protecting property values in the area. But I feel that, in coming through for us, they have really demonstrated their value as a cooperative."

Revitalised

The foundation now faces the daunting task of actually getting the plan off the ground and restoring the link between Holwerd and the sea. Verbeek is very excited at the prospect:"The various parties involved are keen to make this happen. We are already seeing a difference in the area since we got the ball rolling on this project – there are definite signs of revitalisation. There’s no turning back at this point! We’re seeing a surge of new, positive energy all around the area. The plans are already having a positive impact on Holwerd and its residents. People feel that the place offers opportunities again – in that sense alone, Holwerd aan Zee has already proved to be a great success."

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