Forever and ever water

“If one can not defeat the enemy, befriend him”. This rule Dutch people, always struggling with water, have mastered to perfection.

Pre Medieval Netherlanders used to say that “Deus mare, Batavus litora fecit”, what means: “God created ​​the sea, but the Batavians (Dutch) the coasts”. Also nowadays they say proudly that God created the world, but the Netherlands was created by them. And there is no great exaggeration in it. A large part of the Netherlands consists of lands torned out of the water.

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Alblasserwaard, windmills at Kinderdijk / photo: Eppo W. Notenboom

Hardly any country is as strongly associated with water as the Netherlands, located in large part below sea level and at the mouth of three big rivers: Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt. Water has always been a curse and a blessing at the same time. It took the land and the people’s possessions many times, but also contributed to the power of the country. Fertile soil gave good yields; a well-developed fleet and maritime trade turned this small country into one of the major economic powers of modern Europe. With the Dutch ability of drying ponds, the European territory of the Netherlands could grow without the need for conquest. A perfect example is the youngest province of Flevoland (established on January 1, 1986), which is located on the former Zuiderzee bay. As a result of drainage, the area of ​​the country has increased from 33.6 thousands km² (1960) to 41.5 thousands km ² (1992). 2/5 of the Netherlands are such polders!



Because of the strong influence of the North Sea the Netherlands have been constantly changing its geographic and demographic shape. For instance: appearing of the The West Frisian Islands and Zuiderzee bay is a result of breaking the Northern Sea into inland what took place in 13th – 15th centuries.

A rising sea level in the 3rd century and frequent flooding the coastal areas forced its inhabitants, Frisians, to leave their country en masse, so after them only their name remained. Drainage of bays forced the conversion of fishing towns into agricultural ones, as is exemplified by the city Veere. The fate of this city has been showed Bert Haanstra documentary “… en de zee was niet meer” (1955) (Engl. “… and the sea was no more”). Moreover, the constant struggle with water has shaped the character of the Dutchman, which is hardworking, tenacious and capable of working in a team. (Without the cooperation of the neighbors no farmer could keep his feet dry). Well, it’s hard not to mention the fact that in the Netherlands even Santa Claus travels on … a boat!

Fought with excess of water was as advanced as technical skills allowed. 2.500 years ago the Frisians built their villages on artificial hills. This tradition has survived for centuries in the form of so-called terps. We find them also in Polish Zulawy, where in the 16th century the Dutch Mennonites had settled down (see: Polen voor Nederlanders – Netherlands in Zulawy). The first polders were formed in the 8th century AD, and dikes were built from about the first millennium. A true breakthrough in the land drainage, however, was the result of the use of windmills, invented in the 15th century. They were used for pumping water from polders to the channels. That system was functioning until the end of the 19th century, when about 10 000 windmills were in use. Only 1200 of them have survived, often used nowadays as accommodation and beautiful landscape decoration. Can we imagine the Netherlands without windmills?

Windmills from Kinderdijk / photo: Dorota Mazur

In the 20th century mills were replaced by computer-controlled pumps. With their help water is drained from the channels in the polders  and transferred to special retention reservoirs and canals located outside the polder. But during dry summers that water is pumped back into the polder, ensuring adequate irrigation of pastures, fields and garden areas. Currently in the Netherlands there are 445 polders. The smallest has a hectare of area, the largest – the eastern part of the province of Flevoland (Oostelijke Flevoland) – has a surface of 54 000 hectares.

But the main problem for the Netherlands is protecting its territory from the floods, as the country many times experienced terrible consequences of them. One of the most tragiwoda - grobyc floods took place on February 1, 1953, when the dikes broke and seawater rushed into the country at a distance of  75 km, killing 1,835 people and tens of thousands of their cattle. For centuries Dutchmen tried to protect their lands by various types of dams and dikes. There is also a natural protection of the coast, especially from the mouth of the Rhine to the city of den Helder, there the coastline is straight, creating the beaches and sanddunes – the latter ones are 60 m high. Because dunes are constantly eroded by the sea, special vessels regularly compliment the sand, dug out the sea in a distance of 10-20 km from the mainland. Photo: graves of those killed in the big flood in 1953.

Another solution are the dams, piled up by the Dutch for a thousand years, but this protection appeared insufficient. Two devastating floods – in the years 1916 and 1953 – led to ambitious plans which forever changed the shape of the Netherlands. The “how”, is shown in the Haanstra documentary “De stem van het water” (The voice of water) – if the Dutch intend to live on in this small country, they have to think on a grand scale. The first of these plans has been forced by extensive flood in 1916. As a result, Dutch people decided to ultimately cut off the Zuiderzee bay from the sea. It was not a new plan however – it appeared as early as in the second half of the 17th century, but was not allowed by modest technology skills. It was the engineer Cornelis Lely who, in the late 19th century, returned to the idea. The project was implemented in 1918 by the construction of a huge, 32 km long dam Afsluitdijk (literally: closing dam). The Afsluitdijk stretches from den Oever in the province of North Holland to Zurich in Frisa. Its width is 90 m and its height is 7.25 m. The practical Dutch used it to build on its top a motorway linking Amsterdam and Groningen (A7/E22). The planned railway is never builded, due to WWII.



Cutting-off the Zuiderzee bay created the IJselmeer Lake and shortening the coastline about 600 km. In addition, it created three large polders: Noordoostpolder (​​48 000 ha), Oostelijke Flevoland (54 000 ha) and Zuidelijk Flevoland (44 000 ha). After the settlement of them emerged the youngest province of Flevoland. The ambitious plan of total drainage of the Zuiderzee was abandoned but in 1976 another dam was erected there – the Markerwaarddijk (the former Houtribdijk). As a result the Markermeer Lake emerged from the southern IJsselmeer.

The catastrophic flood of 1953 led to the Delta Plan, assuming to build a system of dams separating the estuary of the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt from the North SeDeltaa. According to this plan a mobile dam was built on the river Hollandse IJssel, and then four major dams: Haringvliet, one in the Strait of Brouwershaven, on the Eastern Scheldt and one on the Veere Strait. The implementation of that Delta Plan lasted 30 years, was finished in 1986. The cost was $ 15 billion. The last big project was the protection against backflow on the Rhine River eventually threatening Rotterdam. Because of the traffic  of ships on the Nieuwe Waterweg a permanent dam construction was not an option, so it was decided to build a giant gate closed if necessary. That Mæslantkering (the largest mobile hydrotechnical build in the world) was opened in 1997, after six years of construction. Photo below: Mæslantkering.


It should be noted that planning all those hydro-technical facilities the Dutch did not forget the protection of the environment. To prevent the conversion of the former marine into freshwater tanks, the constant flow of fresh salt water is ensured. Erecting all these facilities does not end the fight for survival however. Another threat, which must be seriously considered today, is associated with global warming and the threat of raising the level of sea water (it is predicted that up to the year 2100 it will be 1.3 m and up to 2200 even 4 m).


Raimond Spekking: Oosterschelde-Stormvloedkering, Noordzeezijde

It is estimated that in connection with this phenomenon ¼ of Dutch hydraulic structures no longer meets the safety standards. Therefore, the Dutch government established a new Delta Commission, which aim is to guide new projects. They have to be long-term and innovative, taking into account the needs of the economy, energy, security and environmental protection. Needless to say, protection of the Netherlands against water costs the taxpayer a lot of money. In addition, ensuring the safety of the country is the responsibility of everyone. And as anyone who has in his area a drainage channel, has a duty to take care of it.

Defense against enemies

Practical Dutch would not have been “Dutch” if had not tried to use water for purposes other than navigation or irrigation. As they had it in abundance, they decided to use it also Linia wodna mapafor defense purposes – flooding areas threatened by the enemy. Water had to be deep enough to prevent the march of infantry, but shallow enough to prevent boat transport of troops and ammunition. For the first time this method was used in the years 1573 and 1574 against the Spanish siege of Alkmaar and Leiden. In the next century, on the basis of this method and existing water reservoirs and locks, a whole system of fortifications was built, forming the so-called Old Dutch Water Line. In 1672, during the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch Water Line was used successfully, effectively stopping the army of Louis XIV. Although this system didn’t work well during the cold (what was seen at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when frozen water let French army go forward), in the second half of the 19th century  the Water Line was extended and modernized to create so-called New Water Line. On the map: Old Water Line.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the defense system based on flooding polders did not pass the exam during the WW II, as was effortless against German aviation, the Dutch authorities seriously considered creation of a new water line to defend against … the Red Army. According to this plan waters of Rhine and Waal rivers were to be directed into IJssel, so there would emerge a giant pool. This plan was abandoned however and the buildings of this new system are demolished.

Forever and ever water

 Will we ever be free from water? – asks Bert Haanstra in “De Stem van het water” (1966). And an immediately replies says: – We do not. We are in it to the ears. And we have to live with it since childhood. According to this principle the Dutch teach their kids swimming when they are very little. There are no excuses!

dziecko w wodzie „De stem van het water” (The voice of water)

No tears will help! In the Netherlands even the cows can swim, but only on special rafts, of course. And nobody cries when the water in the canals freeze. Boats are replaced by skates – it is a hundreds years old traditions what is shown on many old paintings. So, in winter time everyone is waiting for the temperature low enough to give a signal to the anticipated race of 11 cities – Elfstedentocht. The route length of 200 km runs on frozen canals, rivers and lakes between the eleven cities in Frisia.


Elfstedentocht – “De stem van het water”

Unfortunately, due to global warming, the most awaited race is declining. The last took place in 1997.

Renata Głuszek

Photos: Eppo W. Notenboom, Wikimedia Commons, “De stem van het water” (Bert Haanstra), Dorota Mazur

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