The history of Dutch water management dates back to about the 9th Century. The country lost large areas of land to flooding until about the 13th Century.

Dwelling mounds and dykes

At the time, the only way people could protect themselves from floods was by living on dwelling mounds, called 'terps'. During the same period, work began on the reclamation of peatlands in the west of the country. This resulted in a considerable reduction of the water levels, which in turn resulted in the soil subsidence (sinking) of the land in the polders. The polders below sea level were particularly vulnerable to flooding by the sea. Floods regularly claimed many victims throughout the centuries (such as the St Elizabeth Flood of 1421) with the loss of life numbered in many tens of thousands of fatalities. However, the Dutch fought back: they conquered the water by building dykes around the peatlands and the densely populated clayey inland regions. Windmills were introduced between 1250 and 1600 - just in time to ensure that the subsiding lands could continue to be used for agriculture and to provide for the drainage of lakes. Maintaining the dykes and sluices was expensive. The maintenance costs were shared by setting up community groups, the predecessors of the later regional water authorities. Every farmer in the community was responsible for the maintenance of a specific length of the dyke. Later on, the regional water authorities took over the maintenance of the dykes to guarantee their strength. This was funded by the landowners, who paid water taxes.

The fight against water was not over

The Netherlands' Golden Age, in the 17th Century, was also favourable to land reclamation. The modernisation of Dutch society resulted in achievements such as the drainage of the 18,000-hectare Haarlemmermeer lake, which would later become home to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The first large-scale engineering project carried out in the 20th Century was the construction of a large dam (the Afsluitdijk) to close off the Zuiderzee. Closing the open connection between the North Sea and the centre of the Netherlands reduced the risk of flooding. The former Zuiderzee is called the IJsselmeer. However, the fight against water was not over: water continued to lay claim to the land every now and again, such as during the catastrophic floods of 1953. The fatal combination of a north-westerly storm and spring tide resulted in the inundation of large areas of the provinces of Zeeland and South Holland. Over 1,800 people died. The flood also caused enormous damage to houses and property. Measures to prevent a repetition of this disaster were proposed in the Delta Plan.

A new approach

The Netherlands built the Delta Works pursuant to the Delta Plan, and in doing so gained a reputation as a country that had won the fight against water and had rescued a large area of the country from its grasp. The Netherlands was once again confronted with near-floods in 1993 and 1995, due to the increased river discharges caused by large volumes of melt and rainwater from the upstream regions. A new approach to water management was needed: instead of continuing to increase the height and size of the dykes, the Netherlands is now making more room for water.

Water management in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a country which is traditionally associated with water management. The inhabitants had to be inventive if they were to survive, so they developed a highly sophisticated approach to water. The high population density (491 persons/ square kilometre) imposes a pressure on space and the environment which has to be managed carefully. Most economic activity is located in the low-lying regions of the country. Since floods in these regions would cause excessive damage of more than 100 billion euros, the country has adopted an approach of prevention rather than evacuation and reconstruction.