The Dutch Delta Works

When it comes to global warming and rising sea levels, the Dutch have a plan for that. No, it isn’t a Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike. Most Dutch people have never heard that story. It was purely a figment of the imagination of American author Mary Mapes Dodge.

1953 breach dike

1953 Dike Failure on the IJssel River (from J. Van Veen, 1962)

In the real world, dikes don’t spring tiny leaks the size of a little boy’s finger. Instead, whole sections rapidly disintegrate and collapse. With a horrifying whoosh, they break abruptly, and trigger raging unstoppable torrents that scour the land and terrify humanity.

1953 boat in dike

IJssel River Dike Plugged by Boat (photo: C. van Gennip, 1953)

During the last such flood in the Netherlands in 1953, instead of a little boy, it was a large Dutch boat captain who plugged the dike. While flood water surged through a 50-foot (15 m) rupture in the IJssel River dike, skipper Arie Evegroen maneuvered his cargo vessel into the breach, saving an estimated three million people from inundation.

Bikes to Maeslant

Exploring the Dutch Delta Works, Port of Rotterdam

In response to the terrible 1953 North Sea Flood, the Netherlands initiated the Delta Works development to protect large areas of low-lying land around the Rhine River delta. Consisting of a comprehensive series of dams, locks, dikes, weirs, and storm surge barriers, the Delta Works complex is the world’s largest flood control system.

Algerabrug

Algera Bridge and Weir Gates of Stormvloedkering Hollandse IJssel

The first element of the Delta Works, completed in 1958, was the Stormvloedkering Hollandse IJssel, a system of two moveable weirs hanging between concrete towers. On the rare sunny day of my visit, the cyan colored weir gates were raised high above the tranquil river below.

Maeslant with boats

Ships Passing Through the Maeslant Storm Surge Barrier

On another calm and unthreatening day, we visited the newest component of the Delta Works. Opened in 1997, the Maeslant storm surge barrier is one of largest moving structures in world. This engineering marvel consists of two steel lattice gates, each the size of an Eiffel Tower lying on its side.

Maeslantkering aerial

Test Closure of the Maeslant Storm Surge Barrier (source: cbsnews.com)

Designed to defend against the 10,000-year flood, the Maeslant storm surge barrier automatically closes whenever the storm waters exceed 10 feet (3 m) above normal. Each year before the beginning of storm season, the barrier is closed for testing. Otherwise, it has only been shut twice for actual storm surge concerns.

Rotterdam ships

Rotterdam River Scene from Erasmus Bridge

The Maeslant storm surge barrier is positioned to protect Rotterdam, the second largest city in the Netherlands, and Europe’s largest seaport. Rotterdam is a modern metropolis, rebuilt in new and daring architectural styles, after being almost completed destroyed by German bombardment during World War II.

Rotterdam pavilion.jpg

Rijnhaven Floating Pavilion, Rotterdam

Like most of South Holland, Rotterdam lies below sea level. Prompted to protect its population, the city is confronting global warming and preparing for sea level rise. We saw houseboat subdivisions, floating exhibition spaces, and a sports court that doubles as a storm water catch basin.

Boys playing

Boys Playing in the Rotterdam Benthemplein Storm Water Catch Basin

In the future, the low-lying Netherlands will be the country most vulnerable to global warming. Even with immediate cuts to carbon emissions, sea level is predicted to rise between 1.5 and 6.5 feet (0.5 to 2.0 m) by the end of the 21st century. To keep the rising waters at bay, the Dutch have a plan to save their country, and it doesn’t involve a little boy with his finger in the dike.

Dutch Boy cartoon

 

Reference:  “New Elevation Data Tripled Estimates of Global Vulnerability to Sea-Level Rise and Coastal Flooding” by Scott A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss, Nature Communications 10, Article 4844, October 29, 2019

 

Feature Image:  Memorial to boat captain Arie Evegroen, who used his boat to plug the Groenedijk on the River IJssel during the North Sea Flood of 1953.

 

Blogger’s Note:  This week, we returned home after our two-month trip to the Netherlands. We will be home for a few months to celebrate the holidays and to research our next trip. Esther and I want to thank all the friends and family that read our blog, and hope you have a very enjoyable (and dry) holiday season.

 

22 thoughts on “The Dutch Delta Works

    • Thanks, Janis! I like the way you put this. The finger in the dike story really minimizes the seriousness of global warming, and heads in the sand is how many world leaders including our own are dealing with it. I read that populations in the coastal cities of east and southeast Asia will be most affected by rising seas. It is obviously a a global problem, with our own great city of Miami, Florida as one of the most threatened.

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  1. Completely fascinating, Joe. I’m not certain I really understand the technology and engineering at all (those moveable weirs in particular). When coastal governments in the U.S. finally come to their senses about sea rise and ocean warmth, perhaps they’ll start to make visits to the Netherlands to learn a few things. They are eons ahead of us.

    Welcome back home. Hope you and Esther have a wonderful holiday season. – Marty

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    • Thanks for the well-wishes, Marty. I hope you and Gorgeous enjoy a warm and wonderful holiday in St. Augustine. The Dutch have employed an interesting combination of flood control devices. Most, like the weirs, are moveable dams that remain open to allow regular river or tidal flows and ship traffic. When a storm is forecast to have high winds, low atmospheric pressure, and/or storm surge, the dam can be mechanically moved into position across the river or bay until the potential flood conditions subside. These are effective solutions but carry a hefty price tag. Our government can surely learn from the Dutch engineering, but will also have to prioritize funds like the Dutch.

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  2. Human ingenuity at its best! Not sure I understand this technology, thank goodness there are such smart engineers out there. So very interesting to read, thanks for sharing. Best of the season to you & yours. Perhaps our paths will cross in Mexico this winter…would be sweet.
    T of B& T

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    • All the best to you too, Theresa & Bob. The Dutch are world leaders in water control engineering. Even King Willem-Alexander is active in the field of water management as a patron of the Global Water Partnership. I am looking forward to my relatively short trip to Mexico with our daughters this January. I love the country and will be exploring some new areas as well as returning to some familiar places. It would be very nice if our paths crossed and we could meet in person to compare notes.

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  3. You know, at dinner with friends a month ago I mentioned that the Dutch had built structures to protect themselves from the North Sea. My friends had never heard of this. Afterwards I looked online for detailed info, because I didn’t really know any specifics.

    The Netherlands displays great creativity and practical knowhow and foresight. An amazing nation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An amazing nation, indeed, Neil. I am impressed that you and your friends are discussing the important issues relating to the Dutch system of flood control. I think that more and more of us will be having these kind of conversations, as the water advances around us. Global warming and rising sea levels are ominous topics, and the potential impacts are serious matters to coastal populations and the human race in general. Fortunately, the Dutch have come up with some creative and practical solutions. Hopefully, other nations will consider the Dutch model as they address their own global warming concerns.

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    • I am happy to know that you liked the posts, Eric. During our two months in the Netherlands, Esther and I thought about you every time we saw an interesting boat. For me, visiting the Netherlands was a fun and interesting way to better appreciate your native land. Esther really seemed to enjoy the chance to become reacquainted with many aspects of her childhood. She especially liked communicating with the local people, riding her Dutch bike, and eating all that delicious cheese.

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  4. Hi Joe, so another great trip is over for you then; best you get straight into planning the next one! Another fascinating post, too; in the area around where we live, indeed all along England’s east coast, there are various memorials to the great flood of 1953 with some astonishingly high water marks. Your posts are always so informative; we’re looking forward to your next trip already, almost as much as you are! Safe journey home.

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    • Thank you, Michaela & Phil. We made it home safe and sound, and without any complications. As you know so well, it is a lot of fun planning a new trip. We already have most of the logistics ironed out for our upcoming trip to Chile this spring. Although I focused on the impact to the Dutch from the 1953 North Sea Flood, I was also interested to learn that the same storm is considered the worst natural disaster in Britain during the 20th century. As you point out in one of your recent posts, the Suffolk Coastal District was particularly hard hit. I can only imagine that it must have rained like a cow relieving itself.

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      • Well I reckon a descendant of that cow is doing its worst again right now. England has been deluged for the past few weeks and floods are again widespread; some Northern areas have had 50% of the annual rainfall in 5 weeks. I’m thinking of building an ark. I have a haunting memory of a news item probably back in the 80s, when respected BBC interviewer John Humphreys was questioning a scientist about global warming, which was at that time a brand new theory. Humphreys treated the interviewee as a madcap scientist with crackpot beliefs. With tongue firmly in cheek and an audible radio grin, Humphreys said, “so we won’t have to go to Spain for our holidays, we can bask in the sunshine here?” “Well”, replied scientist, “I think we’ll see exceptionally wet winters first”. Hmmm….

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        • The cow has definitely returned. We have seen a lot of your flooding on American TV, and hope you have been able to stay above the floodwaters. Mr. Humphreys was obviously misguided; although, a holiday in Spain may still be preferable for sun seekers, as long as Thomas Cook is not involved.

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  5. I am in awe of their foresight in planning for not only storms, but the rising sea levels that are certainly coming! I’ve heard they have already had to make some adjustments to accommodate higher water levels. I don’t know if they’re simply more sensible than most countries or the fact that so much of their land is below sea level is the reason for being so prepared, but I do know that the rest of us could learn a thing or two from the Dutch!

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    • The Dutch planning and foresight is awesome, Ann. As you know from your own travels in the Netherlands, much of the country is below sea level, and the terrain is extremely flat and full of brimming bodies of water. The Rhine River system that flows through the Netherlands to the North Sea forms a huge sunken delta with multiple channels like the branches of a tree. The Dutch Delta Works project includes dams and other barriers to block each of these channels. If another storm surge is forecasted, they can simultaneously close these barriers and seal off the entire river delta system. As the saying goes. “drastic times call for drastic measures”.

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    • It is always good to get home, Christi. Not only have the Dutch solved their current water problems, they are also looking to the future to stay one step ahead of rising seas. They are a very practical and proactive bunch! Late fall in northern Nevada is very nice, and this year has been no exception. After two months in gray and rainy Holland, it has been a relief to see the sun again. In February, we will be out of here again for three months. This time, we are heading to South America to explore a whole new part of the world that we have never been to. I’m not sure what I will write about yet, but it should be easy to get some beautiful pictures.

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    • Absolutely, Dave. Even though the Netherlands is the most threatened nation on earth to the rising seas caused by global warming, they have so far proven that future catastrophe can be averted with a well-funded engineering project. After the 1953 flood, the Dutch powers-that-be concluded that they had no choice but to undertake the massive Delta Works project. To them, it was simply a matter of life or death. Without it, their main population centers and nearly half of their land would be under water.

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    • I’m glad you liked the photos, Les. During our two months in the Netherlands, I can’t tell you how many times Esther and I said, “Leslie and Dave would love this place”. Besides your favorite cows, we saw a lot of other animals and birds. Also, the greenery of the landscape and ever-present canals were a pleasant change from Reno’s brown color palette and dry climate. Looking forward to seeing you guys real soon!

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