On February 1, 1953, a combination of an exceptionally high spring tide and powerful northwesterly winds drove the North Sea over the dykes to flood much of Zeeland. The results were catastrophic: 1855 people drowned, 47,000 homes and 500km of dykes were destroyed and some of the country’s most fertile agricultural land was ruined by salt water. Towns as far inland as Bergen-op-Zoom and Dordrecht were flooded and Zeeland’s road and rail network was wrecked. The government’s response was immediate and massive. After patching up the breached dykes, work was begun on the Delta Project, one of the largest engineering schemes the world has ever seen and one of phenomenal complexity and expense.
The aim was to ensure the safety of Zeeland by radically shortening and strengthening its coastline. The major estuaries and inlets would be dammed, thus preventing unusually high tides surging inland to breach the thousands of kilometres of small dykes. Where it was impractical to build a dam – such as across the Westerschelde or Nieuwe Waterweg, which would have closed the seaports of Antwerp and Rotterdam respectively – secondary dykes were to be reinforced. New roads across the top of the dams would improve communications to Zeeland and Zuid-Holland and the freshwater lakes that formed behind the dams would enable precise control of the water table of the Zeeland islands.
It took thirty years for the Delta Project to be completed. The smaller, secondary dams – the Veersegat, Haringvliet and Brouwershaven – were built first to provide protection from high tides as quickly as possible, a process that also enabled engineers to learn as they went along. In 1968, work began on the largest dam, intended to close the Oosterschelde estuary that forms the outlet of the Maas, Waal and Rijn rivers. It soon ran into intense opposition from environmental groups, who pointed out that the mud flats were an important breeding ground for birds, while the estuary itself was a nursery for plaice, sole and other North Sea fish. The inshore fishermen saw their livelihoods in danger too: if the Oosterschelde were closed the oyster, mussel and lobster beds would be destroyed, representing a huge loss to the region’s economy.
The environmental and fishing lobbies argued that strengthening the estuary dykes would provide adequate protection; the water board and agricultural groups raised the emotive spectre of the 1953 flood. In the end a compromise was reached, and in 1976 work began on the Stormvloedkering (“Storm Surge Barrier”), a gate that would stay open under normal tidal conditions, allowing water to flow in and out of the estuary, but close ahead of potentially destructive high tides.
Completed in 1986, the fascinating Delta Expo, signposted as Waterland Neeltje Jans, is on the Stormvloedkering. It’s only once you’re inside the Expo, though, that you get an idea of the scale of the project. It’s best to start with the half-hour video presentation before taking in the exhibition, which is divided into three areas: the historical background of the Netherlands’ water management problems; the technological developments that enabled the country to protect itself; the environmental consequences of applying the technologies and the solutions that followed. The Surge Barrier (and the Delta Project as a whole) has been a triumphant success: computer simulations predict most high tides, but if an unpredicted rise does occur, the sluice gates close automatically in a matter of minutes. If you cycle to the Expo on cycle route LF16, you’ll run alongside open beaches and dunes, past wind turbines and onto the storm barrier itself, with ample opportunities to peer into the sluice gates: allow for blustery winds on the way back.