Noordzeedijk: Utopia or an Alternative Future?

Carlos Hernanz García

Climate change has proved to be one of the greatest challenges of the 20th and 21st century. Global warming has been happening since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and it has been scientifically proven to be sped up by man made actions that are leading to an accelerated, progressive rise of the global average temperature. Consequences of such can be devastating for life on this planet. To prevent further catastrophes, engineers and researchers from all over the world have been coming up with ideas to avoid the consequences of its effects, like the rise of the sea level.


A group of Dutch scientists (Sjoerd Groeskamp and Peter Kraal) have proposed building a gigantic dam in the North Sea (Noordzeedijk) following the flood control system model in the Netherlands to protect Western-European countries from the devastating consequences a mild rise of the sea level would carry. Even though this is still just a proposal and, according to the researchers who proposed it, is only for when climate change mitigations fail, it is a drastic measure that would lead to massive environmental and economic results. To have a better understanding of what these environmental and economic consequences that such an engineering masterpiece would provoke are, I decided to conduct a research into what the current flood control system in the Netherlands involves.


Flood control is a set of methods used to protect dry land from the damaging consequences of a flood. The Netherlands is a country that due to its particular geography has been protecting themselves from floods since the early establishment of humanity in the region. It was the Frisians who around 400 BCE started constructing their terpen (village in Frisian), known in English as earth mounds. These prevented the villages from flooding when the tide rose higher than usual and it helped the early inhabitants to protect themselves from potential catastrophes. As the local population began to grow and technology became everyday more sophisticated, the inhabitants of the area began draining the water out and reclaiming dry land from the sea using methods such as canals, windmill-propelled water-pumps and dikes (levees), evolving into the picturesque, fertile country that is modern-day Netherlands.


In 1986, Flevoland was established as the 12th and youngest province of the Netherlands. This province was created on the Southern Sea by draining the masses of water located between the Schokland and Urk islands using three polders, making it the largest piece of man made land on the planet. This particular situation has carried massive, both positive and negative consequences for the environment.


On the one hand, ever since canals and dikes were built, most of the area affected by this alteration of nature has turned into wetlands and grasslands, which has been beneficial for some species of waterbirds, who come to this area as it is a flyway junction between the Arctic tundra and the African continent. Not only was this beneficial for migrant waterbirds, as a whole new polder ecosystem was created where birds would feed from the fauna natural to these shallow, slow-moving waters. Furthermore, since the water flow is controlled as it goes in and out of the inland into the sea, an endless source of electromotive energy has been created. Infrastructure such as the new Afsluitdijk provides the Dutch with a source of sustainable energy that is staggeredly reducing their carbon footprint.

On the other hand, altering a habitat where animals live and depend so much on the environment they live in may lead to an unfixable loss in biodiversity. E.g.: the construction of the Afsluitdijk, which is a huge dike built in 1916 separating the Frisian Sea from the Ijsselmeer to prevent high tides to flood the Netherlands caused the Ijsselmeer to become a freshwater body where there used to be an estuary. This has caused a massive impact on the ecosystem, where fish would migrate from the estuary towards the open sea to lay eggs, develop or breed and then come back. There have been several solutions for this alteration of the ecosystem, such as a fish migrations river.


As these changes have been happening since so long ago, there is a lack of documented information on this specific possible loss of biodiversity. Nevertheless, the Dutch government has been investing in keeping track of the species and environments to protect the country’s rich biodiversity. In addition to this potential loss of biodiversity, a phenomenon that has been proven to be happening is what is known as soil subsidence. Soil subsidence happens when too much weight is put onto a smooth soil. Since the Netherlands was built on a junction of river deltas, most of its soil is loose, and human practices such as water drainage, excessively heavy building and depletion of underground water sources to list a few have caused the Dutch soil to be sinking. One of the most affected areas is the Randstad, which is the Netherlands’ biggest metropolitan area that happens to be almost entirely built under the sea level. As the soil is sinking, it has become more difficult to keep the water out and that is why several institutions are researching soil subsidence.


Having reclaimed land to the sea through this system of flood control has had a historical positive outcome for the Dutch economy. As land was gradually reclaimed and dried out, new farmland was created, making the Netherlands the second biggest vegetable exporter in the world and the country with the highest numbers of livestock per head in Europe. Not only do they export agricultural produce, but also energy, as it is one of the leading countries in exports of everyday greener energy.

Besides, foreign regions like Texas have been interested in Dutch flood control technology for their own advantage, meaning more foreign investments in the Netherlands. Living under the sea level may be perceived as dangerous and risky to some people.

Primary research shows a wide trust of the Dutch in their country’s infrastructure. Out of 28 people surveyed in the Netherlands, 57% of which live under the sea level, 71% find it safe to live under the sea level, opposed to a 29% who do not. This does not necessarily mean that the Dutch are not scared of the rise of the sea level, as 43% of the surveyed claimed to be scared of the rise of the sea level, which however, suggests that there is a generalized trust in the flood control infrastructure of the Netherlands. This trust may be earned by the efficiency of this infrastructure when it comes to the safety of the citizens, as shown by primary research, where roughly 3% of the surveyed have ever lived a flood.


Uncertainty reigns in the future of humanity. Projects as big as the Noordzeedijk show desperate measures for desperate needs. Even though projects as ambitious as having reclaimed land from the sea in the Netherlands have shaped history and changed the way humans live for the better, the environment factor needs to be taken every time more seriously, especially regarding constructions with such a huge environmental and economic impact in the world. Should humans continue altering the environment to improve their lifestyle? Should mankind adapt to Earth or should Earth adapt to mankind’s needs? Do we have the power to defend ourselves from Earth’s will? These questions have been left as an open debate for the readers to participate in. Food for thought!


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