The Netherlands is a country well known for its intricate landscape of canals, tulip fields, windmills and cycling routes. But did you know that the country has been in a defiant war against water since the early 17th century?
The Netherlands relationship with water is complicated, to say the least. Nearly a quarter of the country lies below sea level and another half sits less than a metre above, putting the country’s entire existence under constant attack from the elements. Consequently, the country has fallen victim to a number of serious floods over time.
A defining landmark in the country’s history in the North Sea flood of 1953. After a heavy storm on the night of 31 January 1953, citizens of the Netherlands woke up to large areas of the country completely underwater. The devastating floods claimed 1,835 lives and forced the emergency evacuation of over 70,000 more. The total damage from the floods was estimated to be over 800 million dollars.
The catastrophic flooding led to multiple in-depth government reviews of events and how they could be prevented, ultimately leading to the developed water defences the Netherlands possesses today. The country’s highly symbolic systems of windmills, canals, ditches, dikes, dams and dunes aren’t just for Instagram aesthetics or utility, but actually a fully-functioning security strategy against mother nature.
One of the largest physical defences the country uses against rising water levels is a device called the Maeslantkering. This enormous piece of machinery is effectively a set of doors that blocks off the ocean when sea levels rise too high. Would you believe that this contraption is almost as long as the Eiffel Tower if it was laying on its side?
Acting as the final piece of the Delta Works, a construction program started by the Dutch government after the catastrophic floods of 1953, the Maeslantkering automatically closes when threatened by floodwaters. It is one of the largest moving structures on Earth, rivalling the Green Bank Telescope in the United States and the Bagger 288 excavator in Germany.
Whilst it sounds bleak, the pressure of the situation has put Dutch engineers at the top of their game. It’s no surprise that they are world leaders in flood protection, storm surge barriers and other water management technologies that are constantly emulated around the world.
As the risk of climate change continues to increase and sea levels rise, the Netherlands future is increasingly uncertain however engineers are constantly working hard towards engineering innovative solutions such as parking garages that can serve as emergency reservoirs.
The Netherlands’ flood defence network is robust and broadly supported. More than 300 institutions, organizations and boards work together to devise comprehensive plans, continually assessing their effectiveness and keeping residents informed of their progress.
Hall, Alexander. “The North Sea Flood of 1953.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (2013), no. 5. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. https://doi.org/10.5282/rcc/5181
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