Why the Dutch Can Implement Flood-Control Measures

Posted by on Jan 9, 2013

The Oosterscheldekering dam in Holland’s Delta Works. Valdimir Siman photo

There’s a fascinating article in today’s online issue of The Atlantic Cities: “We’re In This Together: What the Dutch Know About Flooding That We Don’t. The short article explores why residents of The Netherlands can pull together to put in place flood-control measures, even if they cost a lot of money. In The Netherlands (Holland), a flooding event is nearly universal–nearly everyone is affected by it, so everybody knows that they have to deal with control measures. In the U.S., by contrast, a flood affecting New Orleans or coastal New Jersey won’t touch the vast majority of the population. The article helps explain why massive infrastructure improvements for flood control are such a hard sell.


  1. Of course, another way to look at this is that the Netherlands is at least 50% an artificial country. (The old saying is “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.”) The idea of managing nature is so ingrained that even so-called “wilderness” areas are heavily managed — forests are trimmed and culled, grasslands are mowed, etc. Over the centuries they have created farmland out of swamps, relocated rivers at their convenience, turned huge saltwater areas into freshwater lakes, etc. While environmentalism now has more sway, it’s easy to see how building the Delta Works and other flood-control projects was a natural extension of how things have always been done. If the Dutch had colonized North Carolina, they probably would have built a dike along the Outer Banks and converted all the inland swamplands for farms. I’m not saying that critically (I’m Dutch, myself), but as an illustration of the gulf between the Dutch and American attitudes toward nature, even historically — because America had plenty of land Out West to move into, places like the Great Dismal Swamp or the Jersey Pine Barrens were left largely untouched. The Dutch were crowded on the edge of a delta, with nowhere to go except new lands wrestled from the sea.

  2. @ Martin Langeveld: “The idea of managing nature is so ingrained that even so-called “wilderness” areas are heavily managed — forests are trimmed and culled, grasslands are mowed, etc.”

    In general this is because there are clearly identified management goals for natural reserves, including the intended vegetation communities. Reasons for managing for particular veg communities, ecosystems, etc. are many, but so far as I understand are often related to factors such as: rarity of the desired feature, or the previous existence of the desired feature which is now being degraded or modified by outside forces.

    An example is the very old sand dune heather systems with lakes in the inter-dune areas in Brabant. These can only be maintained by removing the increasingly fertile topsoil (where heather cannot continue to grow), maintaining drainage patterns that allow the continued existence of the wetlands, and keeping up the traditional grazing of the system.

    It may look like the “managing nature is so ingrained that even so-called “wilderness” areas are heavily managed” but without this management the heather-dune-wetland system would cease to exist.

    Perhaps you also need to recognise a couple of things. First, that there is no “pristine” unmodified land in The Netherlands. Second, what we take for well managed wilderness in other countries is actually a collection of vegetation communities undergoing progressive change (natural or human-caused) which most people fail to see because of the time scales involved and/or lack of sufficient technical expertise to recognise the changes.

    With regard to their flood control works, there is an aspect of Dutch culture that goes well beyond the “governance, openness to new ideas, flexibility, and a willingness to realize that sometimes, when the common good is threatened, stubborn individualism is useless” mentioned in the article that Martin Langeveld is commenting on.

    This is an ingrained concern for the common wellbeing of society and a willingness to be involved and proactive. Put simply, the Dutch look out for each other and for their community, and this can be seen in numerous small ways on a daily basis.


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