U.S. Water News Online
AMSTERDAM -- Hans Brinker must be turning in his grave for
the Dutch are beginning to turn their backs on the celebrated little
boy who saved their forefathers by sticking his finger in a dike. The
government is drawing up plans deliberately to break some of the
country's famous sea defenses to let water on to the land. The
government should be ready to implement the scheme -- which strikes
deep into the national psyche -- later this year.
The aim of the plan is to save the most densely populated parts of
the country from the rising waters by sacrificing relatively
unimportant farmland. Amid huge controversy, the government is locked
in delicate negotiations with local authorities about which areas
should be surrendered to the flood.
When these are complete, specially selected areas will be set
aside to be inundated when the waters rise and new housing will be
banned on vulnerable land. The Ministry of Transport, Public Works
and Water Management has said that the question was not whether the
plan would be implemented but how.
Two thousand years ago all of what is now the Netherlands was
above sea level. But now half of the country and most of its people
would be drowned if its flood barriers were all to disappear. The
land has long been sinking as the Dutch have pumped out underground
reservoirs, lowering the water table and digging it up for peat.
Meanwhile, the seas are rising faster than ever and wetter weather is
increasingly filling rivers to the bursting point.
Up to now the Dutch have responded by building ever higher dikes.
But they have had some narrow escapes all the same. In 1995 250,000
people had to leave their homes in the biggest evacuation since World
War II, when rivers almost burst their banks. And 1998 was the
wettest year on record, bringing another desperately close call.
This year the country will complete a $1.6 billion crash program
of strengthening 465 miles of dikes, but a report by four government
ministries has concluded that this process will not work in the long
"Nature does not let itself so easily be shackled," the report
says. "There is a growing realization that this approach is subject
to a law of diminishing returns. Procrastination is no longer an
"We seem to have painted ourselves into a corner; the cost of
water management just keeps rising and flooding is expected to become
more common. We will have to decide where the high cost of intensive
water management can be justified and where not. The longer we delay,
the harder the choices will become."
And Monique de Vries, the secretary of state for water policy,
told a symposium last year: "Despite all our work, it remains
difficult to keep our heads above water. We must reserve space now
for extreme conditions. It is a calculated sacrifice."
Henk Zomerdijk, mayor of the villages of Echteld and Ochten in the
central Netherlands, which narrowly escaped disaster in 1985, adds:
"We just can't go on endlessly building dikes higher and higher. The
higher they are, the more danger there is if they break."
Return to the
U.S. Water News' past archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.