Water control and land reclamation
More than 25% of the area of the Netherlands is below sea level, so an effective system of water control is needed to keep the land dry and habitable for the many people - 60% of the population - that live in these low-lying areas. Modern pumping stations work day and night to drain off excess water. In the past this was done with the help of windmills.
The most renouned example of land reclamation was the closure of the Zuider Zee in the
thirties, which entailed the construction of the 30 kilometre long Barrier Dam connecting
the provinces of Friesland and North Holland. The dam transformed the Zuider Zee into an
inland sea, which gradually became a freshwater lake (the IJsselmeer).
On the first of February 1953 a combination of spring floods and heavy storms put large
areas in the southwestern part of the country under water. This disaster, which cost
hundreds of lives, underlined the urgency of constructing a network of barriers closing
off the estuaries in the south west. All the estuaries have now been closed, with the
exception of the New Waterway and the Western Scheldt, which remain open to allow shipping
access to the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp (in Belgium).
The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Land-use planning is thus vital. Planning policy is implemented at all government levels. The municipal councils draw up use zoning plans which indicate how land may be used and what may be built on it. The provincial authorities are responsible for drawing up land-use plans and for approving municipal use zoning plans. Central government provides the main outlines of physical planning policy.
The most characteristically Dutch dwelling is a terraced family house with front and back gardens which forms a block with two, three or more comparable dwellings. In the fifties and sixties, many houses were built with through lounges and large windows to make them light and sunny. As space is limited, many blocks of flats have been built in urban areas.
The Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) is an International Education Institute offering post-graduate education, training, research and advisory services in the field of Urban Management, Urban Environmental Management and Housing.
After the Second World War The Netherlands had enormous housing shortages. In the four
decades after, an average of 100,000 new homes were built every year. Quantity rather than
quality was important. The vast majority of these homes were subsidised by the state,
which enabled rents to remain low. In this way wages could be kept low too, which
strengthened the Netherlands' ability to compete on the export market.
The national budget deficit began to increase during the eighties. In order to restrict
expenditure subsidies were gradually being shifted away from the dwellings themselves to
be converted into allowances for tenants with low incomes.
Roughly 2.4 million rented dwellings - 40% of the total - are administered by housing
associations. The financial ties between the State and these associations have gradually
become looser. The system of using state loans to finance low cost housing was dispensed
with. Rent policy, for which central government had been almost entirely responsible, was
partially deregulated in 1993.
In early 1995 the rivers Maas and Waal in the southern Netherlands burst their banks. But the flooding did not turn into a disaster. Almost all of the 250,000 people forced to leave their homes at the drop of a hat were home within a week. To prevent such a near-disaster from occurring again, the decision-making procedures for dike reinforcements were immediately changed and work on the dikes themselves was rapidly taken in hand.
Sixty per cent of the Dutch population live below sea level. To cope with the inevitable threat from the sea, over the centuries the Dutch have constructed a system of dunes and dikes that now stretches over more than 3000 kilometres. Whereas our eyes were always on the west coast, in the winter of 1995 it was the higher-lying part of the country that fell victim to the excessively high water levels in the rivers that enter the country from the southeast.
Under the watchful eyes of the television crews and photographers who had flooded into the area, the dikes managed to hold back the water, although only just in some places. And while journalists and camera crews from all over the country were on their way home, Prime Minister Wim Kok sprang into action.
The new legislation for the Delta Project for the Major Rivers, which speeds up the procedures surrounding dike reinforcement while detracting nothing from the care with which it is done, was drawn up in record time. Public consultation rounds, appeals procedures, recommendations and - in the most extreme cases - compulsory purchase, will now all take place simultaneously, rather than consecutively. This means that, by the end of this year, 150 kilometres of the 690 kilometres of dikes that need improvement will have been brought up to scratch. The whole operation - expected to cost around 2.5 billion guilders - should be complete within five years. The government announced this even before the waters had subsided. And while the water level fell, shares in contracting companies rocketed.
But the Netherlands intends to rely not only on the dikes and other water defences in the future. The rivers too will be widened and deepened where possible, and allowed to flood certain areas temporarily when necessary, without causing any risk or damage. They will be reclaiming their water meadows - the area between the dike and the river bank. However, the water storage capacity of the major rivers will also have to be increased in Germany, France and Belgium before they reach the Netherlands.
Most of work finished Work started in mid-April 1995. Annemarie Jorritsma, Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, took up a spade to launch the project on the dike near the village of Ochten, which had been under greatest threat during the flooding when a 200-metre crack appeared in the dike. To save the villagers from ever again having to rely on the army to bring sand bags and plastic foil to protect them, it was decided to reinforce 3.5 kilometres of dike. Most of the work was done by mid-November.
Work to finish off the dike and the surrounding area with roads and cycle paths, benches and street lamps, plants and new orchards, and a new covering of grass, is almost finished now.
A total of 25 weak points have been identified, and work is already under way to improve them. Fleets of trucks have delivered thousands of loads of sand and clay. One site of such activity is along the river Waal between Ophemert and Opijnen, where almost 13 kilometres of dike had to be raised by 80 centimetres. This may at first sight seem to be a fairly simple job, but it means that the base of the dike has to be widened by dozens of metres.
This operation alone has taken 600,000 cubic metres of clay and 250,000 cubic metres of sand, brought in from neighbouring water meadows, which are now lower as a result. This has killed two birds with one stone, since the river can now 'store' huge amounts of extra water. The area is also to be declared an area of special natural beauty, which is good news for the flora and fauna there.
Last winter was pretty hard, and the ground was frozen for several weeks, but it was also fairly dry. This meant that there was hardly any rising water and work could continue most of the time. "We are on schedule," says Koos Groen, spokesman for the Association of Water Boards, which is overseeing the Delta Project for the Major Rivers on behalf of the government. "The weeks of frost made it difficult to lay concrete, but we were able to carry on with the bulk of the work - adding extra clay and sand. The weakest sections of dike, most of which are along the Waal, had been reinforced by the end of the year. The statistical chance that people will get their feet wet has been reduced from once every 200 years to once every 1,250 years. But we can't give an absolute guarantee that there will never be any more floods."
So the dike reinforcements are going well, and their natural and heritage value has also been enhanced. The chance of flooding has been reduced to once every 1,250 years, which makes the future look a whole lot safer. So did the flooding cause a lot of damage?
Television companies ran a huge appeal, which raised tens of millions of guilders, and each household that had to be evacuated received 500 guilders from the government. This meant more to the victims than the money alone. The government drew money from various funds to help pay for the material damage, which cost 500 million guilders in total. Companies could claim any demonstrable extra costs associated with the evacuation from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, and farmers and market gardeners were covered by a scheme set up by the agriculture ministry.
No compensation was paid for damage that could not be shown directly, such as loss of turnover or profit, however. This is Tiel Chamber of Commerce spokesman Jaap Docter's only grumble. But he adds that the economic affairs minister, Hans Wijers, has made good his promise that "no company will go bankrupt as a result of the flooding". All the companies in the river area are still in existence, and none of them has changed its investment plans, says Docter. "Of course some businessmen were left scratching their heads for a while, but there was only one international company that considered closing its branch in the area."
Without even being asked, Docter explodes the myth that foreign companies are reluctant to come to the Netherlands because they assume that the entire country could be flooded within no time. In fact, there is something of a paradox here. "Since the flooding there has been a big increase in interest in this area," he explains. "In Tiel, for instance, where several dozen hectares of industrial land has been derelict for years, everything is now fully booked. And house prices - a good indicator of the attractiveness of an area - have also risen lately. We can now relax again, thanks to all those truck-loads of clay and sand."
The prompt and thorough action in the river area represents this country's second victory in its battle with water since the completion of the Delta project (the impressive coastal defences in the southwest Netherlands designed to cope with storm surges) in February 1985.
By Paul van Tongeren, Holland Horizon nr.3, September 1996.