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ResearchSocietal themesEarthquake research in Groningen

Recognizing Groningen’s earthquake problems as a disaster

It is quite correct to refer to the Groningen situation as a disaster because of the social problems caused by earthquake-related issues. Policymakers therefore need to tackle these issues accordingly. That is the conclusion reached by Marten Hoekstra in his final-year research project. A student of Socio-spatial Planning at the University of Groningen, Hoekstra was awarded the UG Sustainable Society thesis prize in September for his Master’ thesis. Sustainable Society is a network organization for all Social Sciences and Humanities research at the University of Groningen.

Isn’t ‘disaster’ a rather grand word to describe Groningen’s earthquake problems? What exactly is a disaster? And is the approach to the Groningen situation the right one? Marten Hoekstra concludes that, according to the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) model, we should indeed be speaking in terms of a disaster – not so much in material terms perhaps, but certainly in social respects. Although the biggest earthquake, in Huizinge in 2012, was a tipping point for recognizing the urgent need to deal with the consequences of gas extraction and to prevent matters from getting worse, now – five years on – the policy has proven to be unsatisfactory. Hoekstra therefore makes recommendations for a more successful approach. He will soon complete his degree in socio-spatial planning and will start his first job, with construction company Dura Vermeer, in December.

Hoekstra investigated whether the Groningen Earthquake Resilience and Opportunities programme (PAKG), set up to deal with the earthquake problems, satisfies requirements as a Disaster Risk Management (DRM) model. Although the Groningen model differs very little from the DRM used by the United Nations, it is viewed as unsuccessful by administrators, the people affected and society at large. Hoekstra believes this is because insufficient measures have been taken to alleviate the insecurities of affected residents, thereby disrupting social structures. A lack of confidence in the DRM model is standing in the way of a successful approach to the problem. Hoekstra’s research report therefore ends with a number of clear recommendations by which the National Coordinator Groningen can achieve – sooner and more effectively – the stated objective of ‘an integrated approach in the areas of safety, liveability, sustainability and regional economy.’

Delta Works

Because unique problems call for unique solutions, Hoekstra suggests abandoning the usual pathways in order to achieve this objective. ‘The problem and consequences are largely known,’ he writes. ‘The solutions currently being developed are placed in a legal and administrative framework so that they fit within existing approaches. But the process can be improved and accelerated by adding decisiveness and clout, which would boost people’s confidence.’

Some of the recommendations, supported by arguments, that he has made to the National Coordinator Groningen are: ‘Build Back Better, everywhere and at all times,’ ‘Go with the flow,’ ‘Don’t be caught out,’ ‘Broaden your mandate’ and ‘Get the public involved from the outset and be accountable.’ These last two in particular are important for the construction sector. He explains Build Back Better (BBB) as follows: ‘Introduce the Build Back Better principle as a basic qualification for every project. Don’t define BBB simply in terms of figures and standards, but also in terms of social progress. Decide how you will implement BBB. Strengthening existing buildings to withstand a magnitude-5 quake isn’t always better. You need to consider other far-reaching measures, such as a comprehensive purchasing tool. The interests of individuals (home ownership) must not come at the expense of social BBB arguments.’

In his final recommendation, ‘Think about post-Groningen,’ Hoekstra paints an encouraging picture of the future. ‘The existing model focuses on the problems that we are facing now. The ultimate aim, a safe and better Groningen, deserves our full attention. However, the unique experiences gained here – for example, the task of strengthening homes – can also be put to use in national and international collaborations. For international partners, the Delta Works are the ultimate proof of how the Netherlands deals with its vulnerabilities. Use Groningen to demonstrate how one should deal (or not deal) with this problem and develop a format, like the Delta Works, to export our expertise.’

Fenneke Colstee, UG Communications

Last modified:26 October 2018 12.34 p.m.
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