Amsterdam pays price for decades of overdue maintenance of quay walls

There were no casualties, but it did scare many Amsterdammers: the quay wall that collapsed at the Grimburgwal on Tuesday afternoon. It happened not to be under the administration of the city council, but of the University of Amsterdam, says responsible alderman Sharon Dijksma. Nevertheless, the municipality is now solving the problem: the building has been evacuated and shows no risk of collapse.

The quay wall itself is a different story, says Dijksma: “We are now going to strengthen and stabilise the quay further in the coming days. The expectation is that it will crumble a bit more.”

According to Dijksma, there is still little to say about the cause. “We still have to investigate whether it has to do with overdue maintenance. Probably a ‘sinkhole‘ has arisen.” With such a ‘sinkhole’ a lot of water suddenly flushes away, for example due to heavy rain or a break in the water pipe, which also involves a lot of soil.

“No sexy subject

Many bridges and quay walls in Amsterdam city centre are in bad shape, says Dijksma. “We haven’t done enough maintenance in recent decades An external study commissioned by the municipality last year showed that the city had been systematically spending too little money on maintenance since the 1980s, because it was “not a sexy subject” and administrators preferred to spend the money on quality of life or social projects.

The quay wall at the Grimburgwal collapsed earlier today:

The consequences became visible in recent years: for example, in 2017 there was a huge ‘sinkhole’ on Marnixstraat, in 2018 a quay wall collapsed on Nassaukade. Last year, the city began mapping out 829 old bridges in the city centre. Of the 21 that have since been fully explored, ten were in such poor condition that they needed to be reinforced immediately. All 80 suspicious quay walls that were investigated also appeared to be in need of renovation.

20 more years to fix it all up

Dijksma: “Last year we started an extensive programme to solve all that overdue maintenance in the coming years. But we have about 200 kilometres of quay wall to investigate, and more than 800 bridges. We are now going to work eight times faster than before to fix everything, but it will still take us about 20 years Until 2023, 300 million euros have been earmarked to solve the problems, but it will probably take about two billion euros to solve everything.

Technical innovation can already solve a lot, says Dijksma: “Nowadays we can use X-rays to record where there is movement in quay walls, almost to the millimetre. And we can also use divers underwater to see exactly what is happening”

Parking spaces or trees are regularly removed if a weak area is discovered, or bridges are closed off. But an accident like the one at the Grimburgwal can still happen anywhere, says Dijksma: “It’s a race against time. It is unpredictable where something goes wrong. A sinkhole like that can happen anywhere.”