The Dutch vs the Sea

Delta Works
The Dutch vs the sea.

You must be thinking, what kind of a topic this is! It is like saying Nature vs engineering. And don't be surprised when I'll say that this particular battle is something that the humans are winning! No, I'm not talking about global warming or pollution. I'm talking about how humans mastered the ocean and dug up a sinking country to rise and stand tall.

The Netherlands is a country with most of its land below the sea level. And it has been fighting the sea to remain intact against floods for decades and the Dutch are winning this war. In fact, they have gained land from the ocean in this process. This story explains why the Dutch cheese is so good, why Amsterdam has canals, and why the people there ride bicycles. There's a saying: "God created the earth — except Holland, which was created by the Dutch." Let's get into it!

The curious case of Geography

As I said before, the maximum of the Netherlands is under the mean sea level. That's why the majority of the country is sinking. If you compare the maps of this country from the 1300s and now, you will see how much land has increased. Near the gained landmass, if scrutinised, there are these strips of areas in the sea. All of this is a result of a decision taken about 500 years ago. In addition to all of this, Holland is situated in a delta of the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt rivers. So the water usually flows outwards, but when a storm hits, the flow is reversed. This is a problem.

Delta Works
The Netherlands in the 14th century.

In January of 1953, a tidal surge shook the North Sea. The titanic waves flooded the Dutch coastline, and it claimed almost two thousand lives. Fifty-four years later, a similar storm threatened the region. But this time, the Dutch were ready. As the water swelled, state-of-the-art computer sensors activated some emergency protocols. And in 30 minutes, a pair of 240-metre steel arms swung shut, protecting the channel ahead. By morning, the storm had passed with minimal flooding. This was the effect of the Maeslantkering. Maeslantkering is one of the most massive human-made structures on this planet, and it is a marvel of human engineering. It is a part of the Delta Works that is saving this country for decades. Let's get into the details of it.1

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Current map of the Netherlands.

The technology killed the storm

Holland was up for this task. They developed a whole system behind hydrological engineering. This allowed them to combat the effects and erosion from the ocean. The strategy was to surround the water that needs to be pushed back and then pump the water into the sea. Sounds simple right? No, not exactly. It took a series of barricades, windmills and pumps to do this. And this included one of the largest engineered structures.2

Delta Works
Oosterscheldekering storm surge barrier.

For comparison, these walls were massive and connected humanmade landmass that now has cities built on them. The walls had to be so firm that it had to have habitable mass over it. These walls also act as a surge barrier for the storms from the North Sea. The windmills were built on these walls at strategic points. The winds from the north rotate the blades of the mill. This further was connected to pumps, just below the windmills using gears. And these pumps were used to throw the water outwards. But not all the walls were used to pump water out. In 1932, Holland did something extraordinary. There was a significant part of the nation in the sea. They built this massive wall as a barrier between the country and the saltwater. This led to the conversion of this huge landlocked water to be a freshwater lake. They later started sectioning out more parts in 1942, 1957, 1968 and 1972 which then was converted to land. The wall of 1972 is still to be converted as of now. How cool is that!

Delta Works
Topographical map of the Oosterscheldedam. Alternatingly it consists of five sections: three movable flood barriers and two artificial islands.

A Dam good city

Well, it is not just about the conversion of water to land, it's also about having water transported to all the cities. Amsterdam, from the name one can deduce, it is a city based near a dam on the Amstel river. The city planners built a series of canals from this water body. This intentional design of the network of canals made the city very accessible. This "boat city" became a very lucrative destination for trade and tourism. This boomed back in the 1500s and 1600s, leading to Amsterdam being an economic hub in Europe. So the population of the city grew substantially. By this, you can see how the Dutch have mastered water and learnt to design cities. Another excellent example is Rotterdam. This excellent video by TED explains how this city is one of the lowest topological points in the landmass, yet it doesn't flood.

Delta Works
This large-scale map of Amsterdam shows the planning and the circuit that the canals follow in the city

Let’s agree to Disabrie

A lot of the things we think of as quintessential Dutch come from this culture of water management. Now that sounds like the wonky thing in the world but hear me out, the bicycles. The bicycles are a product of this lowland topology of the country because when you have flat land, it's relatively close together. After all, as most of your area is waterlogged, then bikes become an efficient, viable transportation means. You also have some of the most fertile grounds in the world for growing grass (to hold the newly acquired ground from the ocean together) which then becomes lush pastures for cows. These cows further produce amazing dairy products, which is why Dutch cheese is such excellent, fantastic cheese. And then, of course, there are windmills. The mills are a substantial Dutch thing. Windmills come from this history of pumping water, lakes and the ocean, to create new pieces of land, which is why Holland is full of mills. Finally, you have these tulips. Tulips are another big Dutch thing. The reason for this is that tulips grow in this unique clay-sand soil mixture, and a lot of that exact soil is right here in Holland. This is because a lot of this land was underwater before they reclaimed it. So it's perfect for growing tulips. So a lot of Dutch cultures could be attributed to water management and conquering the water.

It’s your turn now

These strategies are just some of the technologies and policies that have put the Netherlands at the cutting edge of water management. The country continues to find new ways to make cities more resilient to natural disasters. And as the rising sea levels caused by climate change threaten low-lying towns across the world, the Netherlands offers an exceptional example of how to go with the flow. Here is a video going in the depth of the engineering behind the Delta Works project.

There is particular awesomeness that comes with beautiful designs. Especially the designs that define your culture, save thousands of lives and yes also defeats nature (not precisely, but it sounds cool.) I, as an engineer, want to design a similar thing that can have an impact on a massive scale. (In a right way) I hope you also share the same goal as me. So if you want to see more of such curious things to gain some inspiration or feed your curiosity, follow us on social media. I've shared the links below. Also, feel free to subscribe to this blog for more stories of invisible geniuses :)

See you next Saturday! Cheers!

  1. Reddit:r/theinvisiblegenius
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  3. Twitter: @notnitinchopra

Reference links

  1. Artikel - Rekenkracht is macht
  2. "The Home-Made Land". For Your Information. Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 92–106.


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