From historic village to ghost town: A case study for uncertainty and conflict in human environment

By Emmanuelle Galeotti                       

Doel is to disappear from the map by 2020 [1]. This historic village is located north of the international seaport of Antwerp in Belgium, on the banks of the Scheldt River that gives access to the North Sea. Doel first appears in records in 1267 [2] and is the unique polder village left in Belgium. Doel has lots of historical buildings, some landscapes made famous by baroque painter Rubens, a 17th century stone wind mill, and a nuclear plant.

What happened? Rise in containers’ traffic demanded expansion of Antwerp’s harbor. Plans to expand the harbor had been in the air since 1963, but were subject to economic fluctuations and politics; subsequently construction of the new containers’ terminal in Doel only began in 2000 with additional plans for industrial development [3].


Sources/Credit: Wikipedia, Romany WG (

David versus Goliath

Located just south of Doel the first terminal called “Deurganckdock” has been operational since 2005. Since 2012 Deurganckdock has been undergoing expansion: it is to become the largest lock in the world with a length of 500m, a width of 68m and a depth of 17m [4].

Construction of the second terminal, Saeftinghe, will erase Doel and should be operational by 2016 [5].

The Saetinghedok would drawn more than Doel

The Saetinghedok would drown more than Doel

Ever expanding Port of Antwerp

Ever expanding Port of Antwerp

Sources:, and

The port of Antwerp is the largest port and petrochemical cluster in the world; it now spans the equivalent of 20,000 football stadiums [6].

Needless to say other communities and polders disappeared in silence to make place for the ever-growing international seaport. Officially the Port of Antwerp will develop the Saeftinghe terminal to guarantee the sustainable growth of the port, the European Investment Bank foots half of the bill [7].

But for those who want to keep calling Doel  ‘home’ the fight is not yet over; they formed  an activist group in 2007 called Doel 2020 to defend their community rights. As the population dwindles some artists and squatters have taken residence in Doel and they keep it alive. Now street art and ghost-town chills attract tourists and photographers, despite the disappearance of Doel’s cafes and hotels.

Demolition started in August 2008, 100 riot-squad officers were sent to oppose locals’ resistance.

demolition doelcaterpillar

Credits: Paul Maes

Social Impact Assessment (SIA), uncertainty and conflict

The Flemish government approved the construction of the new dock in Doel in 1998. The village was to be demolished. Those willing to leave were offered a sum by the government depending on the size of their dwelling and the number of years of residence in Doel. Owners also received compensation for the loss of their property while assistance to find a new home was proposed to the tenants [3]. The official  population declined from approximately 1300 in 1972 [2] to 188 in 2013 [10].

An SIA was conducted in 1999 (after the green party was locally elected) to evaluate the impacts of the port extension on Doel’s sociological profile. The population survey uncovered the fact that people wanted to stay only for their emotional bond to their village; never did they mention any positive outcomes – like jobs from the new development [3]. As for environmental justice, people living now in Doel are the most vulnerable: elders, jobless, single member dwellings, all tenants and deprived of services [3]. The SIA conclusions acknowledged the possible remediation of impacts on the environment, but stressed that social impacts were to “be very significant” on the village’s social fabric.  According to Marx (2002), the culprit is the uncertainty the community was left in for over 40 years, which had a deleterious effect upon household’s decision-making.

The Aarhus Convention was enforced late in 2001; therefore public consultation was not yet main stream in Europe at the time of the SIA.

Unfortunately, the SIA came too late and the opportunity to prevent or diminish conflict between authorities and community was lost. Acting pro-actively through an SIA to identify potential causes and consequences in conflict-sensitive situations is often emphasized in the literature[8,9], because impacts on human environment start at the announcement of a change not when impacts materialize as is the case with physical and biological impacts. “Conflict-aware SIA” would have been a worthy approach since further delay or change in the expansion plans would be enormously costly to Antwerp Port Authority.

Essential elements for  a successful SIA include [9]:

–          Proper communication at all stages of the process

–          Stake-holders identification and network analysis

–          Considering each conflict as context-dependent and having a case-by-case approach

In SIA “subjective feelings and perceptions are valid impacts and indicators of impacts (…) they lead to negative experiences and may trigger conflicts.” ([8] p33)

According to these authors caution is necessary when identifying potential reasons for conflict as it is difficult to understand how all the variables interact in a conflict setting. Therefore, monitoring is critical to keep communication flowing and to avoid potential conflicts.

In October 2013, the group Doel2020  achieved the challenge to “put Antwerp’s plans for extension in the balance” after reaching to the Auditor of the Council of State[10]. As of 2014, Doel is still on the map and the Saeftinghe tidal container dock is still in the plans. The uncertain future of Doel continues.


[1] Telefunker , accessed 01/18/2014

[2] Wikipedia, accessed on 01/21/2014

[3] Axel Marx, Uncertainty and social impacts: A case study of a Belgian village, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Volume 22, Issue 1, January 2002, Pages 79-96, ISSN 0195-9255,

[4], accessed 01/19/2014

[5], accessed 01/18/2014

[6],  accessed 01/19/2014


[8] P. V. Prenzel & F. Vanclay. (2014) How social impact assessment can contribute to conflict management. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 45: 1, 30-37.

[9] C.J. Barrow.(2010 )How is environmental conflict addressed by SIA?. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30: 5, 293-301.

ISSN 0195-9255,


[10], accessed 01/19/2014


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