About the Netherlands

When the dikes broke

The Netherlands’ battle to conquer water

A stormy night in February, 1953. A fateful combination of a heavy storm, high tide and low pressure creates a once-in-a-century surge of sea water that batters the coastal defenses of the Netherlands, a country with almost one fifth of its territory below mean sea level, and almost half of it less than one meter above it.

At the time of the flood, none of the local radio stations provided evening broadcasts, and most weather stations only operated in the daytime. By the time the scale of the impending disaster became clear to the government's Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, it was already too late. Their desperate warning to flee and seek high ground never reached the people in the flood-threatened area in time, and the lower part of the Netherlands, in particular the ironically named province of Zeeland ("sea land") was inundated. A wall of water up to 5 meters high breached age-old dikes and sea walls, rushing inland and killing over 1,800 people in a single night.

Realizing that such disastrous events were infrequent, but not impossible, the Netherlands developed one of the largest civil engineering projects of its time: the Delta Works, an extensive system of dams, dikes and storm surge barriers designed to keep the low countries safe from future floods. Only twenty days after the flood, the Delta commission was inaugurated; a formal government body that drew up a plan that took over forty years to complete.

Although safety was the number one priority, there were significant other factors. The economically vital port of Rotterdam had to remain accessible. The estuary of the Rhine, Europe's largest river, which right cuts through the affected area, could not simply be blocked off. Consequently, an ingenious system of barriers, movable sluice gates and storm barriers that would only close in times of emergencies was devised. The building of the 'Delta Works' was such an enormous project, that it was sometimes referred to as the 'eighth wonder of the world' - and not without good reason.