You may have heard the saying “God created the earth, but the Dutch created The Netherlands”. That seemed a teeny weeny little bit arrogant to me at first. The same as saying ‘Lebanon is the Paris (or Switzerland) of the Middle East’. But sure enough, I’m starting to understand the reason behind it.
On one of my trips last year, I visited Friesland, in the North of the country. I’ll never forget standing on a dike, and looking north to the sea, then south – and down! – to the towns built on the other side. All with their chimneys at sea level, separated by a piece of earth with a road on top. It felt as if my eyes were tricking me. I remember telling my husband: ‘I can never live here’. But many Dutch below are happy to, safe and dry. And apparently confident that their government can be trusted to regularly maintain the dams and dikes – not pocket tax money intended to do so – and ensure these folks stay dry while happily riding their silly bicycles a few metres away from the sea lurking above their heads. A Dutch friend once told me that she would never object to paying water tax. She knows that the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment uses her money to manage water levels and protect the country and its citizens.
Water is everywhere. Even more impressive than the dikes in Friesland are the man-made water works in Zeeland in the South. It was this part of The Netherlands that suffered the ultimate nightmare of the Dutch, the 1953 disaster that made the country confront the sea head on. On 31 January of that year, heavy storms, strong winds and very high tides made the sea rush over and through the old dikes protecting cities and towns in the South-West of the country. The North Sea water stormed in and wiped out houses, farms and streets. Almost two thousand people died, a hundred thousand were evacuated. The enormous destruction and death made the Dutch decide to put everything they had into preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again, to work together to keep the sea out for good.
It was a rainy day (like almost every other day in this miserable excuse for a summer) when we bent our upper bodies forward and braved the strong head winds on our way to the Oosterscheldekering, one of the largest dam-like inventions in the country. From a distance, all I could see was an endless bridge. When I climbed the stairs and was standing on it, in the middle of a sea arm, I thought: I’ve never been surrounded by so much water. With a simple push-button, barriers can be dropped to the bottom of the sea when it rises dangerously high. Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives depend on this thing keeping out the North Sea when it’s told to do so. It was absolutely frightening, and so impressive. How the hell did the Dutch build this?
It took nearly fifty years and almost ten billion guilders (equivalent to five billion euros back then). The result is the Delta Works. If you look at the pictures linked to this post, you’ll see what I mean. This huge project consists of over 10,000 miles of dikes and a total of 13 dams and barriers, their sole role being to protect people and their lands. It is at the same time environmentally friendly, allowing fresh and salt water to mix and fish to migrate, with several movable barriers that close off the sea during extreme storms. The Dutch now control the sea, not the other way around.
More land is reclaimed all the time, and entire towns are still built on what used to be water. With The Netherlands being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, the Dutch solution to creating more space is to steal more land from the sea. Every now and then they concede a bit of land to water, if they must (like in the Room for the River project). The Dutch have also figured out how to build a functioning transportation network on, around, over, under and through water, with amazing bridges and endless tunnels. They have transformed their threatening surroundings into beautiful canals, lakes, rivers and windmills. Constant anticipation and flood control by water engineering experts continue to be a priority as sea level rises and fifty-five per cent of the country remains either below sea level or heavily flood-prone. The Dutch water management system works perfectly.
Contrary to many people who feel zen when near the sea, I wanted to move back onto actual solid land very quickly. That’s when we went back to our hotel for a break in the charming medieval town of Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland. We chose to stay at one of the oldest hotels there, and were upgraded to a Baroque suite at Aan de Dam hotel (thanks guys!). It has an antique ambience, with classic furniture and hundreds of LP records of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix among others. This was enough to put us back on track for a romantic night.