The Netherlands lies on the coast of the North Sea. "Netherland" aptly means "low land". About one third of the Netherlands lies below sea level, with the lowest point being 22 feet below sea level. The country isn't underwater right now due to a complex system of dikes, pumps and sand dunes along the coast. It is not a coincidence that most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands are related to water management in some shape or form. Besides, it constitutes the only country in the world whose key areas were reclaimed from the sea, not from neighbors. A popular local saying goes, "God created the world, the Dutch created The Netherlands". The Netherlands is also referred to as Holland and people from Holland are called Dutch.
The problem of land subsidence didn't actually exist around two thousand years ago. In the 12th century, the fishing community settled along the river Amstel. The area was slightly above sea level. The area along the river was prone to floods as there was a saltwater inlet. However, sea levels have been rising for ages and this area became quite swampy. Moreover, the soil in the western part of The Netherlands consists of peat. Peat is a type of soil that becomes denser when water is extracted from it. To keep up with the demand for food, the Dutch dug up the marshes and sold the peat, converting marshes to farmland. But as the marshes were drained, the peat density increased. It lead to further subsidence of low-lying land. These peat areas are sinking 0.8-2.0 centimeters per year.1 Unfortunately, this makes Holland vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise. Interestingly, major airports like Schiphol Airport and Rotterdam the Hague Airport are below sea level. The monument of Hudde's Stone is used to measure water levels not only in the Netherlands, but in the whole Europe.
Few serious floods affected the country during 1287 and 1953. For many ages, Dutch have been developing innovative systems of dunes, dykes, canals and barrages for preventing floods. Many canals were dug mostly in the 16th century. These structures are repaired and reinforced every year.
The Netherlands is located in a delta where the rivers Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt and Eems drain into the North Sea. To protect the Netherlands against flooding the first Delta plan was developed in 1953. It included construction of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers to shorten the coastline while keeping important seaways open. Embankments are an artificial slope usually made of earth that resists water hazards that lead to flooding or erosion. Storm or river barriers are large adjustable gates that control the flow of water in a stream, river, or levee. Sand dunes along the coast of the Netherlands aid in protecting the coastline from wind and water erosion. Many experts of water management, as well as authorities and civil society, are part of this Program. The water boards are fully responsible for water management. First of all, they check the level of water on a regular basis. If necessary, they also adjust the level by pumping out water to the higher canals. Sometimes they also pump it to the rivers running directly to the sea. Besides flood protection, these systems also pride various economic and ecological benefits. Every year the cabinet submits the Delta Program to parliament. The current Delta Program initiated in 2010 under the 2nd Delta plan aims to make The Netherlands resilient to climate change and ensure a sufficient supply of fresh water in 2050. Annual estimated budget for Delta program is approximately 1 to 1.2 billion Euros until 2050.
The total length of dikes in the Netherlands is over 22,500 km. The Dutch closed the weak holes in their coastline with the North Sea itself as a first step. A large part of the coast consists of naturally formed dunes higher than the sea level itself. In the lower-lying parts of the country, water is continuously pumped to higher canals, which, in turn, transport the water to the rivers to allow it to flow back to the sea.
Maeslant barrier is a massive storm surge barrier in South Netherlands. It was completed in 1997, to protect Rotterdam, Europe's largest port. It automatically closes when Port of Rotterdam is threatened by floods. This gate has two arms, each arm as tall and twice as heavy as the Eiffel Tower resting on either side of the canal. It is one of the largest moving structures on Earth. When the gate is closed, the arms float out onto the canal making an impenetrable steel wall against the North Sea. The process takes two and a half hours. Pressure from the sea is then transferred from the wall to the largest ball joints in the world, embedded in the banks on either side of the river. The steel ball joints for each arm are about 30 feet in diameter and weigh 1.5 million pounds. Computers, using a closed electronic system to avoid cyber-attack, monitor sea levels hourly and can shut the gate automatically or open it.
The 32 kilometre long Afsluitdijk dam protects large parts of the Netherlands since 1932 against flooding from the Wadden Sea and the IJsselmeer. It is also a motorway used by thousands of people every day. It runs from Den Oever in North Holland province to the village of Zurich in Friesland province. It is 90 metres wide and able to withstand severe storms. It also allows sufficient water discharge from the IJsselmeer into the Wadden Sea and fish migration from the Wadden Sea into the IJsselmeer.
Dikes only have water on one side of the barrier. Dams have water on both sides. The Netherlands witnessed little dike-building activity in the early Middle Ages. To strengthen dikes, stony materials were added to the dike revetment. Most of the stone was transported from Norway and Belgium. The Netherlands' dike network extends for over 22,000 kilometres. They have also constructed earthen embankment known as levees along river banks for preventing flooding. Delta plan also aimed to give more space to the water in rivers and provide early warning of water surge. They ensured more space for the water body by lowering the flood plain, deepening the summer bed, strengthening of dykes, relocation of dykes, reducing the height of the groynes, increasing the depth of the side channels and removing obstacles. Besides, From the 1200s, windmills were used to pump excess water out of the lowlands and back into the rivers beyond the dikes. So, windmills became an icon of the country. The pumping station draining water from canal at Ijmuiden, located westwards to North Sea is the largest in Europe. The world's most powerful water pump which was built in 2004 is functioning here. It can pump at a rate of 60,000 litres per second.
Sea levels are expected to rise in the country by as much as 1.3 metres this century and up to four metres over the next 200 years.7 Dutch architects have designed buildings that withstand floods. They are giving emphasis on floating houses which will make them virtually unsinkable. Amsterdam saw its first floating neighborhood rise in 2011 in Ijburg area. Floating farms are also growing for alternative fresh food production.
Today, the Netherlands considers itself protected against a 10,000-year storm. It is supported by research done with the largest wave machine in the world located in Netharlands. It can test structures state of protection against ocean waves.
The combination of the Delta Works and Zuiderzee Works is one of the modern world's wonders. The Zuiderzee Works is a comprehensive system of dams and land reclamation. The submerged area is first enclosed, or sometimes partially, by a dyke to keep water out. Canals and pumps were used then to drain the land and to keep it dry. By the thirteenth century, the Dutch were regularly using windmills to pump water off reclaimed areas known as polders. Nowadays, the Netherlands has about three thousand polders. Dredging process involved sucking sand from the bottom of the ocean and spraying that sand onto designated areas to build up their height. With the sand in place, the next step would involve paving the reclaimed land with massive stone blocks to prevent the reclaimed areas from washing away. Reclaiming lands serve agriculture, horticultural interests, urban planning, recreation, commercial interests and enhance nature also. The Netherlands reclaimed around 2,700 square miles of land from what were once seas, marshes, lakes, and swamps. That makes around 17% of the country's current land area. The Nieuw Land National Park, located near Amsterdam is the largest man-made natural park in the world. Reclamation of 29,000 hectares land for this park started in 1950. However, land reclamation has adverse impact on biodiversity, emission and climate change.
Interestingly, learning swimming to address waterborne disaster is a must here. From the age of four, virtually all children start five years of swimming classes. Achieving the final "diploma" requires a test that includes treading water for half a minute, navigating an obstacle and then swimming 100 metres while fully dressed in heavy winter clothing.
The Dutch, whose low-lying country is crisscrossed by rivers and bordered by the sea, have been battling with water for centuries. The Netherlands is currently the safest delta in the world. The country's water sector earned 7.6 billion euros in 2018 by selling their expertise to other low-lying countries around the world. Bangladesh, one of the most flood-prone countries on earth in cooperation with the government of the Netherlands endorsed the Delta Plan 2100 recently. It would tap Bangladesh's huge potentials as a delta country by addressing climate change, disasters, water resources management while ensuring food and water security.
Mohammad Mahmudur Rahman Niaz is a civil Engineer and a serving Military Officer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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