How the Netherlands Reclaimed Land From the Sea

Polders and Dikes of the Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Maarten Van De Biezen / EyeEm 

In 1986, the Netherlands proclaimed the new 12th province of Flevoland, but they didn't carve out the province from already existing Dutch land nor did they annex the territory of their neighbors, Germany and Belgium. Instead, the Netherlands grew larger with the aid of dikes and polders, making the old Dutch adage "While God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands" come true.

The Netherlands

The independent country of the Netherlands only dates back to 1815, but the area and its people have a much longer history. Located in northern Europe, just northeast of Belgium and west of Germany, the Netherlands contains 280 miles (451 km) of coastline along the North Sea. The Netherlands also contains the mouths of three important European rivers: the Rhine, Schelde, and Meuse. This translates into a long history of dealing with water and attempts to prevent massive, destructive flooding.

The North Sea Floods

The Dutch and their ancestors have been working to hold back and reclaim land from the North Sea for over 2000 years. Beginning around 400 BCE, the Frisians were first to settle the Netherlands. It was they who built terpen (an Old Frisian word meaning "villages"), which were earth mounds upon which they built houses or even entire villages. These terpen were built to protect the villages from flooding. (Although there were once thousands of these, there are about a thousand terpen that still exist in the Netherlands.)

Small dikes were also built around this time. These were usually rather short (about 27 inches or 70 centimeters high) and made of natural materials found around the local area.

On December 14, 1287, the terpen and dikes that held back the North Sea failed, and water flooded the country. Known as the St. Lucia's Flood, this flood killed over 50,000 people and is considered one of the worst floods in history. A result of the massive St. Lucia's Flood was the creation of a new bay, called Zuiderzee ("South Sea"), formed by floodwaters that had inundated a large area of farmland.

Pushing Back the North Sea

For the next few centuries, the Dutch worked to slowly push back the water of the Zuiderzee, building dikes and creating polders (the term used to describe any piece of land reclaimed from water). Once dikes were built, canals and pumps were used to drain the land and to keep it dry.

From the 1200s, windmills were used to pump excess water off the fertile soil, and windmills became an icon of the country. Today, however, most of the windmills have been replaced with electricity- and diesel-driven pumps.

Reclaiming the Zuiderzee

Storms and floods in 1916 provided the impetus for the Dutch to start a major project to reclaim the Zuiderzee. From 1927 to 1932, a 19-mile (30.5-kilometer) long dike called Afsluitdijk (the "Closing Dike") was built, turning the Zuiderzee into the IJsselmeer, a freshwater lake.

On February 1, 1953, another devastating flood hit the Netherlands. Caused by a combination of a storm over the North Sea and spring tide, waves along the sea wall rose to 15 feet (4.5 meters) higher than mean sea level. In some areas, the water peaked above existing dikes and spilled upon unsuspecting, sleeping towns. Just over 1,800 people in the Netherlands died, 72,000 people had to be evacuated, thousands of livestock died, and there was a tremendous amount of property damage.

This devastation prompted the Dutch to pass the Delta Act in 1958, changing the structure and administration of the dikes in the Netherlands. This new administrative system, in turn, created the project known as the North Sea Protection Works, which included building a dam and barriers across the sea. This vast engineering feat is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Further protective dikes and works including dams, sluices, locks, levees, and storm surge barriers were built, beginning to reclaim the land of the IJsselmeer. The new land led to the creation of the new province of Flevoland from what had been sea and water for centuries.

Much of the Netherlands Is Below Sea Level

Today, around 27% of the Netherlands is actually below sea level. This area is home to over 60% of the country's population of approximately 17 million people. The Netherlands, which is roughly the size of the U.S. states Connecticut and Massachusetts combined, has an average elevation of 36 feet (11 meters).

A huge part of the Netherlands is highly susceptible to flooding. Time will tell if the North Sea Protection Works are strong enough to protect it.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "How the Netherlands Reclaimed Land From the Sea." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Rosenberg, Matt. (2020, August 28). How the Netherlands Reclaimed Land From the Sea. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "How the Netherlands Reclaimed Land From the Sea." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).