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If the Dutch could beat back the encroaching waves in the 17th and 18th centuries, why couldn’t low-lying developing nations today also overcome gradual changes in sea level?

How the Dutch Tamed the Waters

By Joakim Book @JoakimBook

Britannia may once have ruled the waves, but it was the Dutch who tamed the sea. In water management and beating back a rowdy ocean, the Dutch are undisputed champions—a title they have proudly held for a long time. Some of the iconic Dutch windmills, for instance those at Kinderdijk, were built hundreds of years ago explicitly to empty the surrounding lands of water. The first dikes and dams in these lowlands were most likely constructed over 2,000 years ago, probably by Romans or Frisians.

For centuries, the people living along the Atlantic coasts have carved off and dammed areas when the tide went out, gradually drying saltmarshes and expanding land suitable for agriculture. Today upwards of one-third of this prosperous northern European nation’s territory lies below sea level. Yet, as the Danish writer Bjørn Lomborg puts it, nobody here “needs scuba gear to get around.” The reason, explains the information site Netherlands Tourism proudly, is that the Dutch have “one of the most sophisticated anti-flood systems in place anywhere in the world.”

Considered one of the modern wonders of the world, some of the storm surge barriers that today protect the low-lying Netherlands are kilometers long. The Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier, for instance, consists of 62 steel slides in-between concrete pillars almost 40 meters high and weighing over 18,000 tons. During normal times, they allow for the free flow of water and fish with a flourishing aquatic ecosystem. When a particularly large storm approaches, the barriers can be lowered to protect the land beyond.

The Eastern Scheldt is just the largest of the 13 grand dams and barriers that make up the Delta Works. Another impressive structure is the Maeslant Barrier on the main waterway to Rotterdam, Europe’s largest seaport. Consisting of two 210-meter long and 22-meter high hollow steel gates that usually rest in adjacent dry docks, the gates swing out and close the waterways when storm surges of at least 3 meters are predicted. When closed, the gates form a next-to-watertight protective barrier. 

The Dutch are squeezed by water from all sides. Still, rather than being subject to the whims of nature, the Dutch are masters of their fate. To mark their achievement, next to the Storm Surge Barrier in Eastern Scheldt is an inscription. In Dutch, it reads “hier gaan over het tij, de maan, wind en wij,” which can be translated as “The tide here is ruled by Thee: Moon, Wind, and We.” It’s not for nothing that a common Dutch saying is: “God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

The creation of these elaborate water protection systems is usually credited to government action after the 1953 storm that killed over 2,000 people. As the badly-maintained levees, which were damaged in World War II, gave way to an unusual combination of a high spring tide and severe storm, the waters rushed through thousands of hectares of houses, pastures, and people. Over the next four decades, the Dutch constructed dams, protective barriers, and ever-more sophisticated systems such that the devastation they saw in “The ‘53” would never happen again.

The construction of these supreme feats of engineering—roughly from the 1953 storm to the final inauguration of the Maeslant Barrier in 1997—cost about 5 percent of the GDP, over several decades. The annual upkeep of the full Delta Works programs, financed out of the taxpayer-funded Delta Fund, comes to $1.8 billion per year, which is equivalent to 0.2 percent of the Netherlands’ GDP in 2019. 

The Maeslant has been closed a handful of times, and the Eastern Scheldt barrier at least 27 times—most recently in the February 2020 storm Ciara. The number of Dutch deaths from flooding since the Delta Works became operational has been zero.

But the Dutch mastery over the sea didn’t begin in 1953. For centuries, local water boards (or “polder boards”) maintained dunes, water protection-fortifications, streams, and trenches. They levied fees on the population in their local catchment area, bypassing political disputes in the capital.

Some of the oldest living financial documents are perpetual bonds from these water companies that, almost four centuries later, are still paying interest on money raised in the 1640s. Yale financial historian William Goetzmann writes in Money Changes Everything that:

“whether the country was run by the Spanish, French, or Dutch, the water companies maintained power of taxation and the ability to raise their own armies in times of need – armies to fight floods. […] Without their own capabilities, the great threat to the citizens would not be from their neighbors but from the ever-present risk of inundation.”

Sea level rises—from a warming planet, thermally expanding oceans, and melting ice caps, ice sheets, and glaciers—may be new worries in a world sensitive to climate change. But, adaptation and innovation aren’t new to the Dutch. Generation after generation of people living along the Dutch Atlantic shore has fought an uphill battle with an encroaching sea. Relentlessly draining lands through clever use of canals, ditches, sluices, barriers, windmills to pump away water, and persistently pushing back the sea, the Dutch have overcome their oceanic challenge.

The United Nation International Panel on Climate Change reports that the global average sea level rose by about 20 centimeters between 1901 and 2010. Yet, over the same period, the Dutch expanded their land area by tens of thousands of square kilometers! The Dutch, in other words, show us that even poor countries by modern standards can come out victorious from a fight with the elements.

If the Dutch could beat back the encroaching waves while being much poorer and less technologically advanced than most people in the world today, why couldn’t low-lying, developing nations today also beat the threat that is gradual sea level rises? Vietnam now has the GDP per capita of the Netherlands in the late 1940s; Bangladeshis are, on average, as rich as the Dutch at the start of the 20th century. But the Dutch mastered the ocean already in the 17th and 18th centuries!

In his long read from January this year, Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper wrote that “whenever a city starts thinking of protecting itself against floods, someone will say: ‘Bring in the Dutch.’” Indeed.

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