The Netherlands — Water, Water Everywhere!

July 28, 2023

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Photographers: Terry M. Coffey; Patti Weeks

Summary Author: Patti Weeks

The Netherlands and nearby countries are in a continual battle with the sea for land. With over 50% of the Netherlands at or below sea level, efforts at water management of the 280-mile (451-km) coastline of the North Sea and inland waters have been ongoing for millennia.

Starting around 400 BC, the first residents of coastal Netherlands built “terpen” (high earth mounds) to protect their dwellings against flooding and high tides. As early as the 8th century, inhabitants began building dikes to hold back waters. From the beginning of the Netherlands’ recorded history, there have been at least 27 sea-related floods, some causing catastrophic land destruction and thousands of deaths.

In 1287 the massive Saint Lucia’s Flood caused coastline dikes to fail and the northwest farmland country to be inundated, killing over 50,000 people. A shallow inland bay swelled to 62 miles (100 km) long and its name, “Zuiderzee” (South Sea), came into general usage. Over the next several centuries, more dikes were built around wetlands creating “polders,” a term for land reclaimed from below sea level. Canals and windmills were built to channel the water from these low-lying areas back toward the sea [Click here to see video on the polder system].

On a recent small group tour of the Netherlands, we were able to see the inside of a still-working windmill, a Dutch icon. This photo of the windmill, with its original Archimedes screw, was taken on April 27, 2023. The second photo shows the levels of the floods of 1825 and 1916 above a polder on the Schokland terp in the province of Flevoland, the Netherlands’ youngest province. This land was gradually reclaimed from the Zuiderzee and added 20% more fertile land to the Netherlands.

Following the flood of 1916, the unique, vast and complex North Sea Protection Works began in 1923 with the construction of the massive 20-mile (32-km) Afsluitdijk dam across the north Zuiderzee. The next component called the Delta Works, began after the devastating flood of 1953 along the southwest coastal region. Dams, locks and sluices were built, including an impressive movable storm surge barrier at the Rhine River delta. The primitive methods of battling the sea have evolved over the centuries to the modern hydraulic engineering designs of today. The North Sea Protection Works engineering is a marvel that the American Society of Civil Engineers named one of the “Wonders of the Modern World.”


Flevoland, Netherlands Coordinates: 52.5333335.666667

Related Links:

History of Dikes and Polders

More About Dutch Dikes

California's Salton Sea