One country’s endless war against water

When nearly a quarter of your nation lies below sea level and another half sits less than a metre above, its very existence is under constant attack.

My mom and I caught our first glimpses of the Netherlands while driving to Rotterdam from the airport. Some sights were exactly as we’d imagined: the traditional windmills, humble constructions of brick and wood; the wide open spaces, unfolding flat and evenly; the bright colours. But then we spotted something curious. Among the patchwork of earth, there was a strip of water that rose higher than the grassy stretch beside it. It appeared as if the liquid might spill over, but it didn’t. Confounding the eye and holding everything in place was a levee.

This was our introduction to the Netherlands’ relationship with water: a complicated balance of inviting it in and keeping it out. It was our initial indication, too, that the country’s vast system of windmills, canals, ditches, dikes, dams and dunes isn’t just for aesthetics or utility – it’s a full-blown national security strategy. When nearly a quarter of your nation lies below sea level and another half sits less than a metre above, its very existence is under constant attack.

Len Verdel, a sailing enthusiast studying business administration, remembers what it was like to grow up below sea level. His home near Zuidplaspolder, the lowest point in the Netherlands, was surrounded by water and connected by a bridge to the mainland. “During heavy rain, the water level in the polder would rise,” he said. “Sometimes the water rose so much that the terrace flooded. We would ask my father: ‘What happens when the water rises even more? What do we do if the dike breaks?’”

As climate change carries on and sea levels rise, the Netherlands’ future is uncertain. Two-thirds of the country is at risk of flooding. Half of its people currently live on land threatened to be under water by the end of the century. And when measured by population percentage, it’s the world’s most endangered nation.

The situation sounds bleak, but the Netherlands’ flood defence network is robust and broadly supported. More than 300 institutions, organizations and boards work together to devise comprehensive plans, continually assessing their effectiveness and keeping residents informed of their progress.

“There is a strong realization that we have to do it together,” said Chris Zevenbergen, chair of the Flood Resilience Group of the Unesco-IHE Institute for Water Education. “There is a continuous effort to keep our feet dry, to keep our country safe. I think that is a bit at the heart of the Dutch people and in their DNA.”

On our second day in the Netherlands, the Hiltermanns – the Dutch couple that fostered me many years ago when I was an orphan – took us to see Kinderdijk, the World Heritage site of 19 windmills scattered a bit east of Rotterdam. Groups of bicyclers pedalled from idyllic windmill to idyllic windmill, rolling down reed-lined paths and over bridges that spanned lily-padded pools.

We stopped at a windmill to look inside, climbing up a steep and narrow stairway to the tiny quarters of the traditional millers who once lived there. From a small streaked window, I watched the mill’s sails spin round and round, the whip and the whirl absorbing my thoughts into a rhythmic white noise. On our way out, I saw a tired-looking man in canary clogs and a navy jumpsuit, likely a volunteer whose role it was to demonstrate for tourists how the windmill once operated. He made me wonder how gruelling it must have been for his predecessors to set and reset the sails each time the weather fluctuated, to pump an endless cycle of water to stay safe.

In the winter of 1953, the most haunting flood in the history of the Netherlands struck without warning, killing more than 1,800 people and displacing another 70,000. As the storm, named Watersnoodramp, brewed in the night, the sleeping residents did not know the sea levels were rising all around them. With no local radio stations broadcasting and most weather stations closed, people could not prepare. The dikes were overwhelmed.

Annerie Houterman, an accounting firm manager living in Amsterdam, has always been keenly aware of this fact; her mother was born in the year of Watersnoodramp. To her family – and to everyone else in the Netherlands – the flood was so traumatic that it has become a way to measure time, marking births and deaths, dividing lifespans and generations. “People live with the sea as if it is their backyard, but they also think it is unacceptable that it takes lives,” she said. “It is essential to life, but also cunning. It creeps up on you.”

The Dutch are resolved to never again be taken by surprise, proactively developing plans that reach a century or more into the future. One such plan is the Delta Programme, an annually updated strategy that will implement even stronger standards for dike heights in 2016. At the same time, we’ll see the completion of Room for the River, a project that began in 2006 to provide space for rivers to flood safely at 30 locations across the country. Initiatives like these are working: since Watersnoodramp, there’s been no significant flooding.

The day before our last in the Netherlands, the Hiltermanns show us Deltawerken, the flood defence system that emerged from the tragedy of Watersnoodramp. In Zeeland, where the North Sea meets the river estuaries, Deltawerken’s retractable storm surge barriers are designed to close in emergency conditions.

With the development of this project has come tourist interest, and the area now includes a water park, aquarium, shows and exhibits. However, the defence system – a collection of concrete so huge it took more than 50 years to complete – is the thing to see. It’s been designated one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. I ascended the massive structure and looked down: the water rushed below, free to flow today but ready to be stopped whenever the future demands it.

They say God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. In fighting the flood waters again and again, the people have defined and redefined their nation’s borders. This struggle has been epic and endless, and its allegory is reflected in the Dutch ethos and psyche. It’s not surprising, then, that so many Dutch people cannot fathom who they’d be without it. “Water is connected to so many stories, memories and events that it automatically ties into my identity,” Houterman said. “Water is almost the constant.”

In the days between our visits to Kinderdijk and Deltawerken, my mom and I witnessed this Dutch love for the water again and again – as we floated past sweethearts in boats along Amsterdam’s canals, as we revelled in ragtime music beside Leiden’s waterways, as we dined table-to-table with strangers celebrating family and friendship on Utrecht’s wharfs. We saw sailboats, houseboats and restaurant boats, where water rooted life as securely as any ground. One boat said “Just Married”.

In the Netherlands, the vast drifting space between a set of dualities is complex, edged by comforts and threats, blessings and curses. It is a people’s deepest love and greatest fear. In this space, the Dutch live their life to the fullest.

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