The first dikes in the Netherlands were built in the 7th century. Monks created these dikes to prevent the sea from flooding the land. Long before that, people sought refuge on natural or artificial hills or constructed basic dikes to keep small areas of land dry.
Rivers and polders
About 1000 AD the first dikes were built along rivers, also for flood prevention. From 1600 AD the Dutch used dikes to create polders. They built the dikes around a lake, wetland or part of the sea and pumped the water out with windmills, creating fertile areas of land.
Throughout the history of the Netherlands, there has been a battle against the sea. The Dutch reclaimed land from the sea and the sea took it back again by storms and storm tides. The most notorious storm tide in recent history took place in February 1953 destroying many dikes in Zeeland, Zuid-Holland and Noord-Brabant and killing 1.835 people.
Other well-known floods were the St. Lucia’s Flood in 1287 and the St. Elizabeth Flood in 1421, creating the Biesbosch, a large tidal wetland near Dordrecht.
Stopping the enemy
But throughout the centuries, water is also used as a defense against enemies. During the Siege of Leiden in the Eighty Years’ War, territory was protected by flooding low-lying polders. And at the end of the 19th century, the Stelling van Amsterdam was constructed to protect the city. It is a circle of fortifications around Amsterdam with lowlands that can be flooded to stop the enemy. Aeroplanes and tanks made these defenses obsolete when they were just finished.
For a very long time, building dikes was the primary means to protect people against the sea, but from the end of the 20th century the Dutch authorities started with ‘ontpolderen’: creating tidal areas by flooding polders that are sometimes centuries old. During a storm these tidal areas absorb the incoming water and in this way protect the land behind.
The best known example of ontpoldering is the Hedwigepolder in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. It was once part of the Saeftinghe area. The devastating All Saints’ flood in 1570 destroyed the dikes of Saeftinghe. And in 1584, the area was flooded permanently as a protection against the Spanish army. The Hedwigepolder was only reclaimed from the sea again in 1907. At this moment, the Hedwigepolder
If you want to know more about this part of the history of the Netherlands, visit the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe.
Photo: Verdronken Land van Saeftinghe, by Saeftinghe kenner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons