BBC, Radio 4,
From Our Own Correspondent
Masters of the Sea
By Jane Labous
Producer: Polly Hope
Introduced by Kate Adie
AMSTERDAM: “’God created the world, and the Dutch created The Netherlands.’” Bart Vonk, a water safety expert at the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, chuckles. “Voltaire. You know, the Netherlands is engaged in an everlasting struggle with the sea. Sometimes the sea wins, sometimes we do.”
The Dutch are at once masters of the sea, and at its mercy. Water in The Netherlands is political, cultural, social; it is life. The existence of a dedicated water Ministry in The Hague, and a Water Act written into law, is testament to this. You only have to scrutinise a map of this country to see that over the centuries the land itself is sculpted and changed by the ebb and flow of sea and humans endlessly reclaiming land off each other; a back and forth dance between the Dutch and the elements. Sixty percent of the Dutch population lives below the highest flood level, while one third of these live below sea level.
Bart speaks to me on Zoom from the third floor of his house in the small coastal town of Voorhout, where in the event of a flood, he confides, he’ll hole up with his family. “Without flood defences, people living in these areas would drown during extreme high-water situations, if they couldn’t be evacuated in time, or shelter on the upper floors of their homes.”
Everyone I talk to here mentions the 1953 floods, when the dykes breached, and thousands perished. In their eyes I glimpse the visceral fear this nation has of flooding. Those floods gave rise to the Dutch Delta Plan, and these days a formidable network of storm surge barriers, dykes, pumps, sluices and locks protects The Netherlands from the onslaught of water, at a cost of millions of euros per year. “It works out about 55 euros per person, which is less than insurance,” advocates Bart. Now though, in the face of climate change, a new Delta Programme 2021 has been launched, to climate-proof the country against rising sea levels, extreme storms and increasing flood risks from European rivers.
The following Friday, way up north of Amsterdam in a sleepy green province called Friesland, I’m in a camper van called Betsy, traversing the 27-kilometre Afsluitdijk, which links Friesland with Noord Holland. I am here to see how the dyke is being heightened and strengthened as part of the new plan. To our left, over the crest of the dyke, is a stretch of the North Sea called the Wadden See, a haven for birds and seals. To our right, the freshwater Ijssmeer lake, where crowds of mallard bob in the choppy grey water, and yellow markers reveal where wind farms will eventually generate energy.
It’s a cold, drizzly autumn day. The rain smashes against the windscreen as I peer out at the ridge of the dyke piled with giant mounds of earth. Along its length, the digger arms of yellow trucks arch into the sky. These machines are heightening the dyke with a new top layer, making it stronger and higher so the sea can’t break through. The risen structure will then be reinforced with thousands of concrete blocks. “It’s got higher in the last few weeks. They’re working hard,” says Iwan, the rosy-cheeked Dutch friend who’s driving me. “I tell you, if they use our engineers to solve flooding, it’ll all be fine, mate,” he adds, laughing into his Viking beard. “Send in the Dutch, mate…”
Iwan remembers from childhood his father coming back from Dyke Watch, soaked through in a yellow sou’wester. In the torrential storm, he and the other older men of the town had reinforced the dyke with sandbags. “As a boy, I loved the dyke,” confides Iwan. “I knew it was there to protect me. I don’t think you’ll find a Dutch guy who says you shouldn’t spend money on a dyke.”
Iwan’s wife, Wendy, shows me black-and-white photos of her own father after the great flood of 1953. “He was five. My grandfather had to move everything to the attic, but the next day their belongings were just drifting in water. They lost everything.”
A gull flies arrow-straight with the traffic as we drive. It’s hard to imagine that we’re on a strip of land that has been reclaimed from the sea. Yet the province of Friesland is abundant with raised ‘terpen’; manmade mounds built by the first settlers to live and farm. These formed ‘polders’ – or areas of reclaimed land – when, like a game of noughts and crosses, new dykes joined them together. “When I go from my house in Den Helder to see family in Gröningen, it’s reclaimed land the whole way, it’s amazing,” says Iwan.
Hard to imagine too, that the Afsluitdijk was first constructed to prevent the inhabitants of Amsterdam from perishing in the event of a catastrophic flood. Now, though there is a second dam between here and the capital, a failure of the dyke would still cause disastrous flooding for this province.
While confident of the Dutch ability to control the sea, Bart is very clear about the rising threats to the population due to climate change. “Severe storms, torrential rain, heatwaves; we’re hardly taken aback anymore,” he points out. “The long-term threat is so urgent that we must consider all scenarios to make sure our country is safe to inhabit in one or 200 years’ time.”
On camera, at his desk beneath the dormer attic window, Bart brings out a cylindrical wind-up torch radio. “I keep water supplies and blankets up here. This torch has a siren to call for help.” He switches it on, a wail down the line. “I can sleep here,” he assures me. “I can survive here in a flood.”