The Battle to Keep our Feet Dry

Most of us are aware that much of the Netherlands is below sea level, but did you know that about a sixth of the land has been reclaimed from the sea? A massive two thirds of the country is vulnerable to flooding. A little scary when you think about it isn’t it?. I’m quite thankful that our house is three stories high… just in case.


‘The Netherlands’ actually means lowlands, and that description is a very accurate one. Without the dikes and protective systems, a massive chunk the country would be submerged (and of course, the part where the majority of people live!). Therefore, flood control is an important issue for the Netherlands.  Natural sand dunes and constructed dikes, dams, and floodgates provide a defense against storm surges from the sea. River dikes prevent flooding from water flowing into the country by the major rivers, while a complicated system of drainage ditches, canals, and pumping stations (historically: windmills) keep the low-lying parts dry for habitation and agriculture.

Past flood disasters, coupled with technological developments, have led to large construction works to reduce the influence of the sea and prevent future floods in the Netherlands.


The Dutch have been known to say, “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland”. The country has literally been shaped by their struggle against the water. The construction of dikes is one of the key factors in this heroic story. Without dikes, half of the Netherlands would be regularly flooded by the sea and the rivers.

The oldest dike in The Netherlands that we know of is about 2000 years old and is situated in Friesland. It was built by monks and made of piled turf. By 1250 most dikes had been connected into a continuous sea defense. Dikes still exist today in all Dutch towns and cities located anywhere near water.

Dutch legend has it that there was once a small boy who upon passing a dike on his way to school noticed a slight leak as the sea trickled in through a small hole. Even though the boy knew that he would be in trouble if he were to be late for school, the boy pocked his finger into the hole and so stemmed the flow of water and saved the town. There is a statue of ‘the boy with finger in hole in dike’ located in Harlingen Friesland Netherlands



Windmills – More than just Wheat Grinders

One of the biggest inventions around the 15th century was the use of windsmills for a purpose other than grinding wheat and grain. Wind mills were used to pump the water out of the sunken polders over the dikes and into the rivers that were situated higher than the land. Wind mills were then placed all over the country. It was this invention that made it possible to keep living below sea level and still have dry feet.



In 1421, a devastating flood occurred that actually ranks 10th in the list of top ten worst floods in history. During the night of November 18 to November 19, 1421 a heavy storm near the North Sea coast caused the dikes to break in a number of places and the lower lying polder land was flooded. Over seventy villages were swallowed by the flood and were lost, causing tens of thousands of casualties and widespread devastation in Holland.


Creating Polders

The reclaimed land areas are called polders. Canals and pumps keep the water out. Windmills used to provide power for the pumping, but now most pumps are electric. In 1820, King Willem I of Orange was the first to reclaim land with the use of steam power. Near Gouda the Zuidplaspolder was reclaimed. The Zuidplaspolder is a polder in the western Netherlands, located northeast of Rotterdam. It reaches a depth of 7.0 metres under sea level.

Flevoland is the twelfth province of the Netherlands. It is located in the centre of the country, where the former Zuiderzee used to be. The entire province is reclaimed land. Just north-east of Amsterdam, this is where the new cities of Almere and Lelystad are now located.


There are polders everywhere throughout the Netherlands. The Dutch are literally the masters of reclaiming land from the sea.

The Afsluitdijk

One of the most impressive dikes in the Netherlands is the Afsluitdijk. This massive 32 kilometre long dike which was built in the 30’s, protects central Netherlands from the effects of the North Sea. What used to be the Zuiderzee (sea), then became the Ijsselmeer (lake) and this dike was also the first official connection between the Province of North Holland and the Province of Friesland.

Afsluitdijk (1).png

More Flooding!

In January 1953, the North Sea flood occurred. The floods struck the Netherlands, Belgium, England and Scotland. A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm surge. The combination of wind, high tide and low pressure caused the water level to exceed 5.6 metres above sea level in some locations. The flood and waves overwhelmed sea defenses and caused extensive flooding. The Netherlands was mainly affected, recording 1,836 deaths and widespread property damage. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern province of Zeeland. As a result of the widespread damage, the Netherlands particularly, and the United Kingdom had major studies on means to strengthen coastal defences.


The Delta Works

In 1958, they began to build the Delta Works. The Delta Works is a series of construction projects in the southwest of the Netherlands to protect a large area of land from the sea. The works consisted of dams, locks, dikes, levees, and storm surge barriers. The aim was to shorten the Dutch coastline, thus reducing the number of dikes that had to be raised.


The Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier, between the islands Schouwen-Duiveland and Noord-Beveland, is the largest of the 13 ambitious Delta Works series of dams and storm surge barriers, designed to protect the Netherlands from flooding from the North Sea.

In the 90s, the construction of the Maeslantkering was the final stage of the Delta Works. First the dry docks were constructed on both shores and a sill was constructed at the bottom of the Nieuwe Waterweg. Then the two 22 metre high and 210 metre long steel gates were built. The gates automatically close when the water rises too high and it is one of largest automatically moving structures on Earth. This impressive storm surge barrier is close to my home; it protects my family, so it would have to be my personal favourite 🙂


Another Evacuation – A New Approach was Needed

One of the biggest recent evacuations in Dutch history is the one that occurred one the 31st of January 1995. On that day and in the coming days, 250.000 people were evacuated along the Rhine, Muse and Waal rivers. Heavy rainfall in Belgium and Northern France caused a dangerously high water level in these rivers. If a dike breached, a lot of land would have been flooded and the water level would have been 5 meters high.

The Rhine swelled but fortunately the dikes did not breach, but in the Province of Limburg a lot of cities did flood due to the extreme high water levels.


Due to increased river flow caused by large volumes of melt and rainwater from the upstream regions, a new approach was needed. Instead of continuing to increase the height and size of the dikes, the Netherlands is now making more room for water.


The Dutch are still working hard at reclaiming land. The Netherlands is gradually getting larger thanks to dredging projects such as the Maasvlakte 1 and 2 in the port of Rotterdam. The land here was artificially enlarged by reclaiming land from the North Sea. Maasvlakte 2 is one of the biggest engineering projects in the Netherlands following the success of the first Maasvlakte area. Approximately 20 square kilometers of land was reclaimed! In addition to the economic benefits for the city of Rotterdam, a 7 kilometre-long sandy beach for recreation has been created.  This beach is worth a visit, it is stunning and never overcrowded. You can read more about that here.




You’ve got to give it to the Dutch. They are masters at water management. I for one, am extremely thankful that my feet are still dry and let’s hope that they stay that way.



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