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Netherlands: The Dutch & Water

Netherlands: The Dutch & Water

Living Below Sea Level

It takes strength and ingenuity to hold back the mighty ocean! If you’ve ever tried to protect a sandcastle from an incoming tide, you know what I’m talking about. There’s just no stopping it unless you have the right technique and the right tools!

The Dutch have exactly those things. In fact, they (and their ancestors) are experts with hundreds of years of experience outsmarting the sea – and water from other sources. A whopping 26% percent of the Netherlands is below sea level – and of the rest, 50% is just one meter above. Their current flood protection systems are some of the most advanced in the world, and have only a 1 in 10,000 chance of failing. However, since 60% of the population live in areas at risk for flooding, they take the job seriously!

Water threatens the Netherlands from all angles. The North Sea, various rivers, and heavy rainfall are all of constant concern. We think of London as the “rainy city” with 110 days of rainfall per year, but some cities in the Netherlands have 193 days of rainfall per year, with up to 34.6 inches of rain!

There have been some watershed (pardon the pun) moments in the history of the Netherlands, when flood prevention and protection technology took great leaps forward out of necessity. The terrible flood of 1953 was one of these.

On the night of Saturday, 31 January 1953 and the morning of Sunday, 1 February 1953, massive storms and unusually high tides caused flooding from the North Sea. The lives of more than 1,800 Dutch people and thousands of livestock were lost, and over 70,000 people were forced to evacuate. In the aftermath of the flood, the Delta Works Project was implemented, forming the largest flood protection system in the world.

In this flood prevention system’s simplest form, dikes, which are man-made embankments, stop the water from invading land that is at or below sea level. The lowland area that’s been reclaimed from the water is known as a polder. So polders are surrounded by the dikes that protect them. Water is constantly pumped out of these areas to keep it dry.

The earliest evidence of dikes in the land that is now known as the Netherlands appears in the late Iron Age, over 2000 years ago! In the 1200s, the windmill’s role in pumping water from soil earned the structure its iconic status. Today, water is pumped from electric and diesel pumps – but windmills both modern and ancient still dot the landscape.

The Dutch had another problem to solve, too. Polder land that has been reclaimed from the sea is high in salt content, and therefore not conducive to plant growth. The Dutch have answered this problem by pumping freshwater into the polders, creating freshwater lakes. They then create encircling dikes and pump the freshwater out of the polder, essentially straining the salt out of the soil and leaving fertile, salt-free land prepped for agriculture.

The Netherlands is the best protected delta in the world, with a staggering 2,700 square miles of reclaimed land. However, it isn’s the only country that regularly reclaims land from the sea, riverbeds and lakes. Throughout history, societies have developed their own innovative ways of increasing their land mass. For example, since 1940, China has reclaimed 4,600 square miles of land, building artificial islands in the South China Sea to support fishermen and gain control of the maritime region.

More and more, people are recognizing the need for more arable land and living space for an ever increasing world population. The field of flood prevention is an important piece of the puzzle. It’s the kind of technology that might not have been on your radar – but is responsible for both saving lives and allowing future generations to thrive.



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