Water management in the Netherlands has always been a major issue for the survival of the country. As more than half of the country’s land is below sea level, the majority of the territory is vulnerable to flooding or submergence. This has also influenced the land use and demography of the country. Some regions, highly exposed to natural hazards, have remained sparsely populated for several centuries. This is the case, for example, of Zeeland, a maritime province in the southwest of the Netherlands. This study of Dutch maps describes the strategies used over the years in Netherlands to counter the problem of floods.
Land reclamation and flood control in the Netherlands
Historically the Netherlands were protected by costal dunes, but successive transgressions of the North Sea parceled out the country, even opening up a sea, the Zuiderzee, in its midst. From 1200 to 1900 the Netherlands reclaimed 940,000 acres of land from the sea. Today, following numerous experiments and a succession of natural disasters, the Dutch have defined the limits of their territory and have built structures without equal. Successive work plans (Including canal works, Zuiderzee and Delta Works), the control of polders, dams and dikes, have enabled them to develop their country in this hostile environment, to take advantage of it and to have complete control of the water.
The Kadaster (the national mapping agency of the Netherlands) has put 200 years of cartography of the country online on the site of the topotijdreis. We thought it would be interesting to take advantage of this graphic resource to study the different evolutions of the Dutch territory.
Two major works during the United Kingdom of the Netherlands period
In 1815, following the French Period, The United Kingdom of the Netherlands was created. It was made up of 17 provinces inspired by the French model of the départements. The Kingdom occupied more or less the whole of the current Netherlands, including Belgium. It also included Luxembourg, which did not follow the same constitution. However, the Belgian Revolution of 1830 changed its borders and following independence from Belgium, the country became the Kingdom of the Netherlands commonly known as the Netherlands.
During this short period two major works were carried out. First of all the Groot Noordhollandsch Kanaal (“Great North Holland Canal”) started in 1920 and completed 4 years later. The purpose of this gigantic 75 km long canal was to connect the northern part of the Netherlands and its access to the sea with the city of Amsterdam. The Zuiderzee was becoming impassable and Emperor Willem I wanted to revitalize the Dutch capital. However, the canal soon became obsolete, it wasn’t very wide and not very deep, and the size of the boats had increased considerably and therefore could no longer pass through it.
The Voorne Canal, completed later in 1929 with the same intentions, suffered from the same problem of inadequate size. About twelve kilometres long, it was the first canal to link Rotterdam to the sea by cutting the Nieuwenhoorn polder in two. It was replaced by the Nieuwe Waterweg (see below) in 1872.
Major works until the end of the 19th century
The Haarlemmermeer lake has long been a problem for the Dutch. However, it was not until 1836, when a powerful hurricane brought the waters of the lake to the gates of Amsterdam, that the problem was solved. At the instigation of King William I, the plan was to dry out the lake and enclose the land. A 61km long canal, the Ringvaart, was built to drain the water. Steam pumping stations replaced the traditional polder drainage system with windmills. In 1852, 170 km² of land was drained and made ready for farming.
In 1872, after 10 years of work, a new canal, the Nieuwe Waterweg, was completed to relieve the transit of ships in Rotterdam. It was one of the most important ports in Europe and the Voorne Canal of 1929 had quickly become obsolete. The canal project came after the construction of two dikes to modfy the coastline. What is interesting about the Dutch canal projects is that the excavated soil is very often reused for the construction of dikes. The 20km long canal allowed Rotterdam to extend towards this new access to the sea and to strengthen its port activity.
In 1876, following the same logic as the Nieuwe Waterweg, the Noordzeekanaal (or North Sea Canal) was built to replace the North Holland Canal. Growing traffic and seafaring vessels were not able to access the port of Amsterdam. So a 25km long canal linked Amsterdam and the IJ Bay in the east, with the city of Velsen and the North Sea in the west. The works did not only concern the North Sea canal, the IJ was polderised to follow the logic of the drainage of the Haarlemmermeer lake. Later, locks and side canals were also built. This major canal had a very important impact on the growth of Amsterdam and the Velsen region, as well as on the IJ Bay.
Dutch water management in the 20th century
Hedwigepolder was another disputed land reclaimed from the sea. This small polder with a surface of 3km² is situated in Zeeland (meaning land of the sea), the province of the southwestern Netherlands. It is an area in the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe. As the name suggests, the area has experienced a succession of floods and a continuous history of reclamation from the sea. Although small in size, this polder is quite emblematic of the fight against the sea that the Netherlands is leading. This marshy area is now returned to nature, following the Sigma Plan.
The Zuiderzee works, an example of land reclamation
Between 1920 and 1924 the island of Wieringen in the province of North Holland was connected to mainland Holland. Between 1927 and 1932 the Zuiderzee was closed by the Afsluitdijk, a 32 km long major dam connecting North Holland and the province of Friesland. This new dam made it possible to control the flow of the Zuiderzee and was accompanied by the reclamation of the Wieringermeerpolder under the former island of Wieringen. The former sea became the freshwater lake IJsselmeer.
Between 1936 and 1940 a new polder was created east of the IJsselmeer, the Noordoostpolder. The last two polders are the Flevopolder and the Noordoostpolder. Together with the previous polder, they form the last province in the Netherlands, Flevoland. The Flevopolder, situated south of the IJsselmeer, consists in fact of two polders. The eastern Oostelijk Flevoland polder, which was drained in 1955, and the southern Zuidelijk Flevoland polder, which was drained in 1968. For a better management of the polder water the technique of Randmeren (bordering lakes) was tested for the first time. It is a chain of lakes, divided into 14 parts, separating the polder from the mainland Holland. This major land reclamation works are the last of the Zuiderzee works. On the map are the tracks of one last polder, the West Flevoland or Markerwaard, which was never built. This map is interesting because it shows the state of the Netherlands in 1954, when the Delta Works were about to start.
Following the start of the Zuiderzee works and the construction of the Afsluitdijk, the damming of the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta was studied. The aim was to change the coastline and to transform this delta, which is very prone to flooding, into several bodies of fresh water. However, the Second World War prevented the development of the works. But in 1953, the devastating North Sea flood ravaged the province of Zeeland, where the delta is mainly located. Plans were taken up and modernised to block the estuaries of Oosterschelde, the Haringvliet and the Grevelingen, and thus reduce the exposure of the dikes to the sea. However, unlike the Zuiderzee works, the Delta works are not a land reclamation plan but a plan to defend the coasts and floodplains. It allowed the construction of monumental and revolutionary hydraulic engineering works associated with an innovation in the management of marine and coastal flows.
In particular, artificial islands were built to close off the Oosterschelde estuary. This made it possible to build the most important dam of the Delta Plan, the Oosterscheldekering, which is 9 km long. It is a dam consisting of 62 steel slide gates, limiting marine submersion. These large slide gates can be lowered in case of heavy storms. Since its commissioning in 1986, the dam has been closed almost 30 times. The slide gate system, present on 5km, is a consequence of an environmental decision allowing the safeguard of biodiversity.
The longest structure in the Delta Plan is the Oesterdam, an 11km long dam between Tholen peninsula and Zuid-Beveland in the western part of the Westerschelde. This dam also necessitated the construction of an artificial island in 1980. To the south of this island, the 4 km long Markiezaatskade was built in 1982, while the Oesterdam was inaugurated in 1986. These two works made it possible to isolate the freshwater canal from the Scheldt to the Rhine, from Belgium to the Netherlands.
Bridges were also built to cross the estuary and connect all parts of the province to the Dutch mainland. Notably the Zeeland Bridge, inaugurated in 1965, its 5km length made it the largest bridge in Europe at the time.
The Delta project brings together a complex of almost 15 dams or flood barriers in the south of the Netherlands. Recently the Europoortkering (1997) has been grafted on the delta plan although it is located further north and aims to protect Rotterdam and South Holland. Officially the delta project was completed in 2010.