The first thing anybody seems to learn about The Netherlands is the fact that a large part of the country lies beneath sea level. This is viewed as a scary thing by many people who've never visited, for no doubt the Dutch are constantly in danger of being flooded? As a matter of fact, being above sea level is no guarantee of keeping your feet dry, and seldom are The Netherlands invaded by the sea anymore. This is largely due to the Delta Works. They were built as the answer to one occasion when things indeed went very wrong.

Disaster flood

The year of 1953 is regarded by the Dutch as the "rampjaar": disaster year. In the night of 1 February of that year there was a great storm. Many of the dikes that were supposed to keep out the sea proved to be neither high nor strong enough. They were destroyed by the sea and the land behind them was flooded. Large parts of the province of Zeeland were covered in water, almost two thousand people died and it took months before the last of the sea water had gone. To prevent anything like this from happening again, the government promised to build the Delta Works (Deltawerken), a set of dams, dikes and other constructions to keep the country safe. Up until then, there had been little attention for dikes and the like, all money went towards the rebuilding of the economy after the war. The disaster of 1953 changed that.

Building of the Delta Works

The Delta Works were built over a period of almost fourty years. They are a system involving locks, sluices, channels, dams and other control methods to prevent flooding. Construction started in 1954 with an old plan from before the war, that was to link three of the islands of Zeeland to each other. The last construction to be finished (in 1997) was the Maeslantkering, that protects Rotterdam and its port from high sea levels. Together the Delta Works have reduced the length of the coastline from 700 to 25 kilometers. In the construction many unique technologies were used, and the Delta Works have been declared one of the modern Seven Wonders by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Delta Works consist of the following parts:

  • Stormvloedkering Hollandse IJssel (1958)
  • Zandkreekdam (1960)
  • Veerse Gatdam (1961)
  • Grevelingendam (1965)
  • Volkerakdam (1969)
  • Haringvlietdam (1971)
  • Brouwersdam (1971)
  • Markiezaatskade (1983)
  • Oosterscheldekering (1986)
  • Oesterdam (1987)
  • Philipsdam (1987)
  • Bathse spuisluis (1987)
  • Maeslantkering (1997)
Together they block off all the sea inlets in Zeeland except the Westerschelde. Some dams completely close off the flow of sea water, the water behind them has turned sweet instead of salty. Later dams were built so they can be closed when necessary, but in normal circumstances allow the free flow of sea water so the flora and fauna behind them can remain largely unchanged.

The Delta Works can be visited. Especially the Oosterscheldekering and Maeslantkering are very impressive and worth a visit. On the island Neeltje Jans that was used for the construction of the Oosterscheldekering there is a permanent exhibition on the Delta Works.