The Dutch v the Water

22nd October 2004, Comments 0 comments

The famous Afsluitdijk keeps the Ijsselmeer to the right safe from the open sea on the left. But in light of the tragic events in New Orleans, will it be enough to keep the Lowlands dry?

The Oosterscheldedam in Zeeland ... the eighth wonder of the world?

A former island in the Netherlands typifies the epic Dutch battle against the rising sea and the ever constant threat of floods — a battle marked by tragic disasters and remarkable victories.

Schokland was a peninsula that became a low-lying island in the Southern Sea (Zuiderzee) in the 15th century. Traces of human habitation date all the way back to prehistoric times but heavy storms and erosion in the 18th and 19th centuries eventually made the island practically uninhabitable for the local fishing community.

The stubborn locals refused to give up though and wanted to continue the battle against the rising tides and regular flooding until King Willem III finally took the decision out of their hands. He issued a royal decree ordering the evacuation of the island in 1859.

The sea held on to its hard-won prize for less than 100 years as the land was reclaimed when the North East Polder (Noordoostpolder) was created on 9 September 1942. Dutch ingenuity of this kind has made polder — which means reclaimed land — an internationally recognised term.

The ambitious project involved the construction of two dikes from the fishing island of Urk back to the mainland. The water in between was then drained to create the new polder, which is now home to almost 45,000 people.

The Ijsselmeer is on the right, the Waddenzee to the left.

A museum was opened on Schokland in 1947 and traces the island's prehistoric and medieval history up to and beyond the reclamation. Schokland was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995.

The museum is in a reconstructed village built around a small church perched behind wooden dikes that rise proudly and unbeaten from the drained land around it. More information can be found here:

The province of Flevoland, the 12th and youngest Dutch province, was created in January 1986 and includes the north east polder and two later polders.

The cities of Almere and Lelystad were built on the new land to provide much-needed living space beyond the packed Randstad (Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht and Rotterdam).

A good museum to visit for more information is the Nieuwland Polder Museum Oostvaarderdijk 01-09, Lelystad. Ph: 0320 26 0799.

Closing the country's 'big mouth'

The creation of the north east polder (and later Flevoland), though impressive, was preceded by a more ambitious project to wall off the Southern Sea — the big chunk missing from the western part of the country.

This feat was achieved by the construction of the Afsluitdijk, a 30km long and 90m wide dike that extends from North Holland to Friesland. A national highway runs on top of the dike.

Cornelis Lely

Recognising this area as the country's Achilles Heel in the battle against the water, thoughts focused on making the Southern Sea a lake and this became technically feasible in the 19th century.

One of the more prominent figures in this debate was engineer Cornelis Lely who unveiled the original plan back in 1891. The Dutch Parliament finally backed it in 1918 but work on the Aflsuitdijk proper did not start until 1927.

The work was conducted from four locations, from both edges of the Southern Sea and two specially-created work islands. The dike was closed on 28 May 1932 and was put to work on 25 September 1933.

An open-air monument and 'museum' is located at the middle point of the Afsluitdijk road. It is worth the drive.

Over time the Southern Sea has turned from salt to fresh water — a popular "swimming pool" beside the big sea for sailing enthusiasts and tourists.

As the new lake (IJsselmeer) fills up with rain and river water, the water is pumped out to sea via the Afsluitdijk discharge sluices, preventing inland flooding.


With large swathes of the Netherlands —  described by the Dutch government as the "drain of Europe" —  below sea level, fighting back the ocean has been a proud tradition in the Netherlands. But just how precarious the Lowlands are was demonstrated with tragic consequences in 1953: the Zeeland dikes gave way.

The resulting devastation killed 1,835 people and forced the evacuation of 70,000, prompting the Dutch government to construct a flood defence system known as the Delta Works.

Beach sand dunes were raised by as much as 5m and the islands in Zeeland were joined by a series of dams, most notably the Oosterscheldedam. This dam can be opened and closed to keep out the sea.

District Water Boards Endowed with significant legal powers to manage the water supply and maintain water barriers, these elected councils are among the oldest democratic organisations in the Netherlands. The Rijnland board can trace
The Oosterscheldedam is so impressive the American Society of Civil Engineers has described it as the eighth modern wonder of the world.

The waterland park Neeltje Jans is located at the Oosterschekdedam itself and offers both films and major exhibitions about the Delta Works, one of the world's largest water control structures. Its website is:

Apart from the former island of Schokland, the Afsluitdijk and the Oosterschelde dam, the Netherlands is criss-crossed by dikes and deeply dredged canals aimed at protecting homes or channelling the water away from the swamp and out to sea.

The complex system of dikes involves two types of embankments. The primary dike offers protection from external water, such as the sea, rivers and the IJssel Lake and secondary dikes offer protection from internal water, such as lakes and canals. 

Looking to the future

In the face of ongoing climate change, the Dutch government has recognised raising the level of dikes will no longer be sufficient: global warming is causing the sea level to rise and the Dutch land basin is sinking due to increased rainfall.

Therefore the focus has shifted to controlled flooding of rivers to minimise damage.

The Netherlands is known as "the drain of Europe"

Together with Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland the Dutch government has drawn up action plans for the Rhine and Maas rivers. The plan involves constructing dikes, river wash lands, water retention regions and adjacent channels.

In the event of extremely high water levels, the Netherlands is investigating the use of emergency flood areas, namely the Ooijpolder and the Rijnstrangen in Gelderland and the Beersche Overlaat in Brabant.

These areas could be used if water levels in the Maas or the Rhine rise higher than allowed in the statutory safety standard. An independent committee is working out the details in consultation with residents and companies in the area.

The Department of Waterways and Public Works is also investigating how to expand the Afsluitdijk's capacity to pump more water out of the IJssel Lake in times of need.

And to prevent the coastline from being swept away, sand spraying was introduced in 1990 to "dynamically" manage the nation's beaches. The project involved transporting millions of cubic metres of sand and adding them to coastal areas.

A joint investigation conducted by the Netherlands and Belgium reported back by the end of 2004 on how to improve safety, access and the natural environment of the Westerschelde inlet in Zeeland Province in the south. These recommendations are now being turned into practical policies.

To prevent repeats of the river flooding crises in 1993 and 1995, the Dutch government implemented the Great Rivers Delta Plan. Instead of simply using dikes to keep the rivers at bay it was decided to give the rivers adequate space.

"Emergency flood areas can be used in extreme situations that are expected to arise once every 1250 years. If no other options are available in the event of extremely high water levels, emergency flood areas function as a sort of insurance policy," the Ministry of Waterways has decided.

Faced with the constant challenge posed by the water, the Netherlands has put its faith in ingenuity and invention to protect fortress Lowlands.

Updated 22 September 2005 
[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Dutch water protection systems

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