the fight against water
As can be seen from the elevation map shown above, a quarter of the Netherlands is below average sea level. At the beginning of the era, the north and west of our country was a swamp delta without dikes, where the sea had free rein. Except for a few estuaries, our coast formed a closed front of beach ridges.
The phases of transgression started around 500 BC; periods of flooding due to severe sea level rise. In these phases we distinguish the Roman, the Carolingian and the late medieval phase. The beach walls raised by the sea were threatened by the water. The Flevo Lake and the Wadden Islands were created. At the height of the Roman phase of transgression, around 275 AD, the closed dune coast was permanently damaged. The Romans, who at the beginning of the era had penetrated to the coast of our low countries, withdrew from the western Netherlands. More and more land was swallowed up by the water, Lake Flevo became a dangerous inland sea and rivers burst their banks.
From the first floods on, all kinds of attempts were made to outsmart the water. The first mounds and dikes were built to hold back the water. Along the Wadden Sea coast, the earliest inhabitants before our era, who initially lived on the silted up land, had been building residential hills since 500 BC. These mounds or mounds were initially one to two meters high and were made higher and higher over the centuries. This happened spontaneously due to the storage of manure and household waste, but also of necessity in connection with the increasing flooding caused the rise in the sea level. Corn was sown at the foot of the mounds, and because there was a shortage of building land, the mounds were made bigger and bigger, sometimes to an area of almost 10 hectares (the village of Hogebeintum in Friesland). There were mounds on which only one family lived and mounds on which several farms stood together, the so-called group terps, from which the mound villages originated. Most terp villages can be found in Friesland. The names of these villages often end in ‘was’ or ‘wier’: Holwerd, Ferwerd, Wanswerd, Jorwerd, Janswier. The oldest travelogue about the northern terp area is from Pliny the Elder, a Roman officer, who visited our Wadden coasts at the beginning of our era. He wrote about the year 47 in his’ Naturalis Historia ‘:’ These people are among the poorest creatures on this earth. Twice a day the ocean penetrates the land with great waves, so that in this eternal struggle in the course of nature one doubts whether the ground belongs to the mainland or to the sea. There a poor people live in huts on raised hills. They resemble sailors when the sea floods the land around them and shipwrecked people when the water recedes. They have no livestock and no milk. They cannot hunt, as there are no shrubs for wildlife to hide. They make rope from sea grass and rushes, from which they make fishing nets. They use mud as fuel, which they dry more in the wind than in the sun to cook their food and heat their arms and legs, stiff by the north wind. Their only drink is rainwater, kept in wells at the entrance of their house. ‘ for there are no bushes where game could hide. They make rope from sea grass and rushes, from which they make fishing nets. They use mud as fuel, which they dry more in the wind than in the sun to cook their food and heat their arms and legs, stiff by the north wind. Their only drink is rainwater, which is kept in wells at the entrance of their house. ‘ for there are no bushes where game could hide. They make rope from sea grass and rushes, from which they make fishing nets. They use mud as fuel, which they dry more in the wind than in the sun to cook their food and heat their arms and legs, stiff by the north wind. Their only drink is rainwater, kept in wells at the entrance of their house. ‘
In 1930, Prof. Albert Egges van Giffen, a Dutch archaeologist, conducted research at one of these mounds in the mound of Ezinge in Groningen into well-preserved remains of farms from 500 BC. From the findings that were made, it can be inferred that our ancestors were less primitive than Pliny the Elder described. Bones of horses, oxen and pigs and candlesticks and skates were found; evidence of a fairly high level of civilization.
Refuge hills were also built on the southern Dutch coast, some of which we can still find in Zeeland. These hillen or refuge mountains served as hiding places for the cattle and were therefore not inhabited permanently. At high tide, the mounds still formed islands in the landscape and the agricultural land was increasingly threatened by the water. In Friesland and Groningen around the year 1000 work started on the dike of the high salt marsh soils, which only flooded at high tide. The hard clay was transported on sledges and burries and then crushed with a fork. The dike that rose was nothing more than an earthen wall. The foreland silted up and after 20 to 30 years a new part could be dike. The silted plains were also embanked in Zeeland and South Holland; the so-called mud flats and salt marshes. Thus, Overflakkee and Rozenburg came into being and the islands of Walcheren, Schouwen and Beveland grew. In South Holland, rivers were diked and in West Friesland the West Frisian dike was thrown against the threatening water. At the closing dams that were constructed along the Zuiderzee, places likeAmsterdam , Edam and Volendam . Initially, this embankment took place under the supervision of the large landowners and the monastic communities. Later the authority passed to the counts of Holland. The Krimpenerwaard, the Grote or Zuid-Hollandse Waard, south of Dordrecht and the Spaarndam date from the tenure of Count Willem I (1203-1222), a count who was particularly committed to the embankment.
However, the danger of flooding was not over with the dikes. In 1170 and 1196, the Northern Netherlands and the Zuiderzee area were flooded, in 1214 the Southern Netherlands and in 1219 the Northern Netherlands. Sources mention sixteen floods in the 13th century and twenty in the 14th century. During the first Christmas flood in 1277 (several more followed in the following centuries) the well-known Dollard arose on the border of Groningen and East Frisia . Numerous villages were then washed away and in the years that followed; names like Westerreide, Ludgerskerk, Ewelveer and Wundeham disappeared from the map. It was not until later centuries that the flooded land was reclaimed from the sea. In the monastery chronicle of the abbey Bloemhof to Wittewierum mention of another flood in this area, St Aagtenvloed of 1287. Between Stavoren and Lauwers came as the source 30,000 people and between Lauwers and Ems 20,000. Given the population density, these numbers are probably not entirely accurate. Zeeland was also hit by the Sint-Aagten flood. In 1404 the Zeeland and Belgian coast were hit by a flood. In particular, Duiveland was severely damaged.
There does not seem to be an end to the floods – large and small. The names of some are well known, such as the St. Elisabeth flood of 1421 . In November 1421, a severe storm caused damage along the entire North Sea coast. During this storm, the dike broke at Broek, south of what is now Strijen, causing the Zuid-Hollandse Waard to flood. The hole in the dike was closed, but the dike broke again in 1422. The inhabitants of the peripheral areas began to build new dikes, near Strijen, Raamsdonkveer and the land of Heusden and Altena. Over time, the Grote Waard became an inland sea, the Biesbosch.
After the St. Elisabeth flood, new floods followed in 1434, 1437, 1438, 1440, 1446 and 1470. In 1509 the Second Cosmas and Damian floods hit Friesland, Groningen and Zeeland. A piece of land on the Groningen coast drifted with cows and all over the Dollard to East Friesland. In the fight against the water, a sea dike was constructed at Petten, North Holland was expanded polder after polder to the north of Schagen. In the wetlands, the Dutch ‘nut’, people also fought against the water. The peat area of the Hollands-Utrecht lowlands was reclaimed. Quays were built and a ditch system was constructed for the drainage.
Because the drained land subsided and began to settle, large areas of the low countries were again under water for a large part of the year. Some of this water was eliminated by paddlewheel mills powered by hand or with the help of horses. In the long run, however, the effect of these paddlewheel mills was insufficient to keep the polder dry. Around 1400 a welcome invention followed by Floris van Alkemade and Jan Grieten; the wind watermill. This mill could pump much more water than the paddle-wheel mills. Although the first mills were still primitive (the hood of the mills was not rotatable and the mills were blown over in strong winds), they nevertheless meant great progress. In the course of the 15th century the mills were improved and more and more polders were used to grind away the water.
The dikes were not always well maintained and the construction sometimes left much to be desired. Initially, each landowner had to take care of the maintenance of that part of the dyke where his land adjoined. Later the dikes were divided into pieces or ‘strokes’ (‘elevated’, ‘hardened’ or ‘parceled out’) and each landowner was assigned the maintenance of a piece of dike. The disadvantage of this system was that if one landowner failed to fulfill his maintenance obligations, the other landowners could also be fatal. Over time, the dike system was centralized. Holland was in water boards(high water councils), managed by dike graves and (high) water councils who were to supervise the dikes. The dike obligation was extended to all landings that benefited from the dike. Three times a year, the dike chief and the dike board – the (high) heemraden – inspected the dikes during the so-called dike survey. In the spring the inspection took place, in the summer the earthquake and in the autumn the post-inspection. When there was imminent danger of a dyke breach and flooding, the dyke army came into action. General conscription existed for this army; when the alarm rang, all men between the ages of 18 and 60 had to appear to repair the dike under the supervision of the dike board.
On November 5, 1530, the Saint Felix flood broke loose. The land east of Yerseke, the Oost-Watering, was swallowed up by the water, together with the town of Reimerswaal and eighteen villages. Noord-Beveland turned into a salt marsh area, only the tower of Kortgene was still visible. Other islands were also heavily damaged.
After the St. Felix flood , new floods followed, of which the one in 1570, the All Saints’ Flood , caused the greatest damage. During this storm, large parts of Friesland, Groningen, Holland and Zeeland were flooded. The Zijpepolder near Schagen was flooded, large parts of Saeftinghe were flooded. Part of Saeftinghe has never been rebuilt and is now known as the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe. Thousands of people lost their lives.
The peat extraction, which also took place in areas inside the dike, created a lot of puddles and lakes. Because the first wind water mills with paddle wheels could only pump the water up two meters, the first large lakes could not be drained until the invention of the wind auger mill. These mills had a much greater lifting capacity and could therefore pump out areas much deeper ago.
Several mills were placed at different heights in low-lying polders. The water was pumped towards each other by the mills, so that the height difference was gradually reduced to the level of the ring canal. This step-by-step drainage and the improvement of the mills allowed lower-lying polders and lakes to be drained and kept dry. In 1564 the Egmondermeer and the Bergermeer were drained; the first reclaimed land. A number of business people from Amsterdam also wanted the Beemsterto be able to invest their money. In 1607 they received a permit from the States of Holland and West-Friesland for reclamation and the Beemster was drained under the supervision of Jan Adriaensz Leeghwater, a Dutch windmill maker and hydraulic engineer. In 1608, for example, Holland had added 6,700 hectares of land. However, not all farmers were equally happy with this land acquisition. For some, collecting eggs was an important means of subsistence and they saw a large breeding area disappear. For fishermen too, the loss of their eel catch meant. They crossed the ring dyke and damaged the mills. The holes in the dyke were not closed properly and after a storm in 1610, when the Zuiderzee dykes broke, the Beemsterfull of water again. Prohibition was again celebrated in 1612. Initially, however, the drainage was not good and nothing would grow. It was not until around 1630 that the Beemster became a prosperous area. This was followed by the Wormer, Mr. Hugowaard, the Schermer , the Wieringerwaard and the Purmer. The Netherlands grew, which was very lucrative for investors. In Zeeland the poet Jacob Cats enriched himself with the reclamation and reclamation of salt marshes on Walcheren. In 1621, at the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce, the dikes of its polders were breached for strategic reasons. Inundation for strategic reasons also occurred several times later, most recently during the Second World War by the Germans (the Wieringermeer ) and by the Allies (Walcheren ).
The dikes were greatly improved over the centuries. In addition to clay, loam and sod, weed was also used, which, packed together in so-called weed belts, formed an elastic buffer in front of the dike. Wooden posts for the weed belts acted as breakwaters. In the 18th century, however, a new enemy, the postworm, wreaked havoc in this tight-knit, fairly durable construction, digging passageways in the woodwork.
Around 1730, enormous damage was caused in Zeeland and West Friesland by an invasion of these animals. In North Holland, the poles were placed behind the weed belts instead of in front, in the hope that this would prevent the pole worm from reaching the wood as well. The costs for this amounted to five million guilders, but the postworm was not stopped. Later the dikes were reinforced with basalt. Poles or other dyke materials were also regularly stolen and so-called ‘dyke traps’ occurred in Zeeland and Goeree. Then an apparently strong dike suddenly subsided and disappeared with part of the land behind it into the water. Research showed that soil layers under the clay consisted of sand, peat and shell dust and showed little mutual cohesion. The water penetrated this and the dike was undermined. At places where such a dike fall had occurred or one expected one, a new dike, a so-called dike or sleeper, was built a few hundred meters behind the sea dike. A problem here was that once there was such a dike, the dike was often no longer properly maintained. When the original sea dike broke, a new sleeper was placed behind the dike.
After the All Saints’ Flood in 1570, numerous floods took place, but the water seemed to have been contained for a while. In the 17th century, however, new storm surges broke out in large numbers. In 1675 floods caused damage in West Friesland, in 1682 hundreds of polders in the southwest of the Netherlands were submerged. In 1682, the province of Groningen in particular suffered. There was eight feet of water around the Martini Tower. Uithuizen, Uithuizermeeden and Pieterburen were virtually washed away and at least 1,600 people drowned. The Christmas floodof 1717 was even more disastrous. In Groningen alone, 2,300 people drowned. Floods also followed in 1775 and 1776, 1825 and 1861. Especially the one from 1825 is notorious. Friesland, Waterland, the Wormer and the land along the Eem were flooded and at least 800 people died. New reclaimed land emerged: Hazerswoude, Hillegersberg and Nieuwkoop.
The steam pumping station was introduced at the end of the 18th century . This even allowed an almost inland sea like the Haarlemmermeer to be drained. Jan Adriaensz Leeghwater had already made a design for the reclamation of the Haarlemmermeer in his ‘Haarlemmermeerboeck’ in 1641 . He then calculated that this would require 160 mills. The surface of the Haarlemmermeer had almost doubled in four centuries to 17,000 hectares. More and more land was crumbling. A number of villages, including Vijfhuizen and Vennep, had already fallen prey to the water . Aalsmeer, Uithoorn and Amstelveen were constantly threatened by flooding. After much bickering (Leiden and Haarlem contested each other’s right to reclamation), after an immense flood in 1836, official permission for reclamation finally came in 1839. A wide ring canal was constructed and in 1848 the first of the three steam pumping stations, the ‘Leeghwater’, turned the water from the lake. In July 1852 the Haarlemmermeer was dry. The land was not sold to investors until a year later. There was still a lot to be done. The 18,000 hectares turned into a wilderness of reeds and willows had to be cultivated; inhumanly hard labor that was done in harsh conditions. In the second half of the 19th century, progress in the Netherlands was rapid; reclamation and draining, construction of the Afsluitdijk . The first plans for the Afsluitdijk date back to the 17th century. However, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the plans for reclamation were seriously considered and in 1891 Ir. Cornelis Lely, three times Minister of Water Management, had a definitive design ready. After that, it would take nearly thirty years before the implementation started.
After a major flood in 1916 , the pace was finally set. This storm surge mainly affected North Holland and caused great damage. The Anna Paulownapolder was flooded, the surroundings of Edam and Purmerend were flooded and Muiden, Bunschoten, Spakenburg and Eemnes were under water. Dykes also breached in Friesland. Large numbers of livestock perished. The island of Marken was flooded so quickly by the water that some people could no longer flee and drowned. The reclamation could now no longer be postponed. In June 1920 work began on the construction of the dike between the island of Wieringen and the mainland and in January 1927 work started on the actual Afsluitdijk. The last power hole closed on May 28, 1932. The Noordoostpolder , Eastern Flevoland and Southern Flevoland emerged and new cities such as Emmeloord, Lelystad , Dronten and Almere arose.
One more time, in 1953 , the water would hit mercilessly, but otherwise the land seems to have won the water for good. After the great flood disaster in 1953 , an all-encompassing defense plan was put into effect, the so-called Delta Plan . And now, after twenty-one centuries, the battle against the water sometimes turns into a battle for the preservation of the water, or living with the water. The last major project in the Netherlands is the ‘ Room for the river ‘ plan, which, after the near-disaster in 1995 with the extremely high water level in all rivers, should ensure that this will never happen again.