844,000 Feet Under the Sea

Europe’s smaller than it used to be. Up until about six thousand years ago, the island of Great Britain was connected to the European mainland via Doggerland, a stretch of swampland that brought the German Rhine and English Thames together at one central outflow point. At the end of the most recent ice age, melting ice led to rapidly-rising sea levels that, in turn, led to Doggerland’s disappearance. Ever since, the British have been defined by a sort of distance from the European continent, one that inspired a period of naval dominance and culminated in the very well-thought out departure from the European Union known as Brexit. But as the London government attempts to further bury the Doggerland connection beneath the English Channel, their neighbors, the Dutch, have made it their life’s work to bring it back.

To be fair, the Dutch aren’t necessarily motivated entirely by an appreciation for far-flung natural history. The Netherlands (or “Holland” if you’re hopelessly reductive and resistant to change) is a famously industrious country with a long, proud history, but it’s also a very small country. 17 million people in about 16 thousand square miles. That’s dense. To be fair again, though, it’s not the most dense. In South Asia, the nation of Bangladesh squeezes over 160 million people into a country the size of Iowa, and they’re still #7 on our list of “most dense nations”. (To be the most fair, numbers 1–6 are countries/city-states with populations that are orders of magnitude smaller than Bangladesh’s. Put in perspective, 160 million+ people makes Bangladesh more populous than both Japan and Russia.) Regardless, the Netherlands is a closely-packed country and the Dutch aren’t psyched to keep it that way. Once the keepers of a top-tier colonial empire whose holdings included Indonesia (14th largest country by land), Suriname, Belgium, New York City, and a hodgepodge of forts and camps all over the world, the Netherlands is now but a shadow of its former self (unless you view European colonialism as a bad thing, in which case, I guess they’re doing much better). In a world (sort of) no longer content to try to unceremoniously steal the land and resources of other nations, a cramped Netherlands had only one route to expansion: the sea.

Realistically, much like the Dutch actually have no specific interest in rebuilding Doggerland, the fall of their colonial empire was not the impetus for their mission to reclaim the land stolen by the sea. While the Dutch would maintain their empire through the end of World War II, losing the East Indies in 1949, their first slight against Poseidon occurred significantly earlier. The place was Achtermeer in the province of North Holland. The year was 1533. Before then, Achtermeer was a lake. After, it wasn’t. The Dutch built an organized system of dikes, drainage canals, and pumps, powered by (Stop! Can you guess what the Dutch used to power the pumps? Quick — you’re running out of time.) windmills! Indeed, the early industrial mechanisms with which the Netherlands have become closely associated do come with a use beyond supplying our friendly Nederlanders with an insane endowment of gluten. With the project’s completion, the Dutch had evidence that their plans to play god with the terrain could bear fruit. One hit had them hooked. Polders — not even once.

Polders, by the way, are the name for these drainage systems. They’re complex collections of dams, pumps, and levees that allow the Dutch to move water out of an otherwise wet location and keep it out for good. One way to misunderstand the Dutch and their land reclamation is to assume they’re piling dirt on top of water until they’ve achieved a height above sea level. Keep in mind: a dirt shortage is what started this whole thing in the first place. Instead, the hero of the Dutch bid for reclamation is their robust series of dikes, known ‘round these parts as levees. Rather than distributing a lot of dirt evenly at sea level height across a wide area, the Dutch use their limited land to build these tiered, sloping walls at the absolute edge of the territory they’ve dredged from the deep. Using a pattern of pumping out water, damming up rivers, and building levees, the Dutch have created a country where a sizeable portion of dry land (26%) is below sea level. It’s less moving land in and more moving (and keeping) water out.

It may be a surprise to learn that keeping water out, though, is hard. It’s not enough to build a wall; you have to build a good wall. Improperly-designed and built levees are what made Hurricane Katrina so devastating in 2005. Moving water out can be no problem, given the right resources, but it’ll always remember what you’ve done to it. The second you forget to maintain your levees, it all comes rushing back. Luckily, the Dutch have something of an accumulated knowledge on the topic of keeping water out. So far in this piece, I’ve attributed the Dutch practice of fabricating a country from the sea to a sort of national hubris, a braggadocio-born beef with the god of the sea. That’s partially correct. If the Dutch are engaged in a centuries-long spat with Neptune, though, it’s because he started it.

We’ve established so far that the Netherlands is a relatively small low-altitude country with a long shoreline, but there’s more. The Dutch also govern over a river delta that serves as the outflow point for three Rivers: the Scheldt, the Meuse, and the Rhine. Altogether, conditions are ripe for catastrophic flooding, even before you start moving the water around. Amazingly, in the thousands of years of human habitation, the Netherlands hasn’t encountered a single flood.

…that was a prank. I got you. They’ve had a shitload of floods. According to the BBC, one 1953 storm was so bad that it killed over 1,800 people, and subsequent flooding and damage affected 175,000 people. The Dutch government responded to the disaster by creating the Delta Works, a project that spanned decades with the goal of regulating the flow of water in and out of the Netherlands and preventing similar catastrophes from continuing to occur. The face of the project is an insane, futuristic sea wall along the coast of the Dutch province of Zeeland (the original, and the namesake for New Zealand), but the process of keeping excess water out of the Netherlands has involved a decent amount of traditional, polder-based land reclamation. Here, the goal isn’t as much to create land to live on as much as it is to reduce the length of the coastline to produce fewer opportunities for hydrological infiltration.

So the Dutch aren’t entirely motivated by hubris, but they aren’t entirely not motivated by hubris. You don’t become the worldwide poldermeester without it going to your head a tiny bit. The Delta Works might be mostly about preventing floods and a few other boring goals (saving lives, etc) but up north, horizons are broader (because of the polders).

For most of its history, the northern provinces of the Netherlands have surrounded a large central bay known as the Zuiderzee. Zuiderzee is Dutch for “Southern Sea”, a perfect name for this northern bay. The explanation here is that the Zuiderzee was named by Frisians, who live north of it, and the Frisians always get their way. We could argue more about the naming of the Zuiderzee, but we shouldn’t, because it doesn’t exist. You know the drill by now. They poldered it. To be the fairest of them all, it’s not all gone. Quite a bit of it is still there, masquerading as two “lakes”, the IJsselmeer and Markermeer, both keeping a low profile in hopes that the Dutch don’t notice and consign them to a similar fate.

In a process completed mostly in the 1950s and 60s, the Dutch poldered enough of the bay to create a unified landmass about half the size of Rhode Island. Comparing it to the smallest of the United States is more than a little diminutive and sorta defeats the point I’m trying to make, but (sea) level with me here: this is all new land, never before populated by humans, at least not since the fall of Doggerland thousands of years prior. In the 1970s, where once there was Zuiderzee, the Dutch officially created the province of Flevoland (after Lacus Flavus, the Latin name for the Zuiderzee) and opened it for settlement. Today, the Netherlands’ youngest province boasts a population of over 422,000 people, all living on land that was, until recently, completely submerged. Where some countries have national epics and origin stories to explain their past, Flevoland’s history is a simpler one that starts with the Dutch dream of telling the ocean to fuck off.

Okay, a few things before I end this. First, much like I fabricated the Dutch obsession with Doggerland and hatred of the deep, the difference between the Delta Works and Zuiderzee works isn’t as absurd as I made it out to be. The presence of the Rhine et al. delta definitely doesn’t help the flood problem, but it’s also not a unique issue. Indeed, the Zuiderzee was home to one of the largest floods in recorded history, killing over fifty thousand and affecting many more.

Second, there’s way too much Dutch naval history to include in a piece fit for my own attention span. I know you’re here for the long haul, but I clock out at 5. Anyway, the Netherlands’ history of dike, dam, and polder building is long and complicated, and I’ve barely barely pumped the first drops of water out of it. If you’re interested in digging deeper, I’ve included my sources below.

Third, I used a figure from the United Nations (via Reuters) in writing that 26% of the Netherlands is below sea level. A ton of websites report that figure as being 55%, but the Reuters piece suggests that all of this is spun off of an original, flawed unscientific piece. This might be a great time to clarify that this is not a scientific piece. None of this is original research. You should’ve known that when I said “fuck”, though.

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Originally published at http://bengrapevine.com on February 8, 2020.

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