Today in Dutch history: the tragic ‘Watersnoodramp’ flooding of 1953

On February 1, 1953, the largest flood in the Netherlands took place, remembered as Watersnoodramp — one of the biggest natural disasters to ever hit the Netherlands.

It was a Monday night, January 31, when the flooding began, continuing into the morning of Sunday. A storm surge hit the Netherlands, the east coast of England, Belgium, and Germany.

As a result of Watersnoodramp, over 2,100 people died, more than 1,800 of which were in the Netherlands. Apart from the lost lives, this tragedy caused chaotic damage to livestock and homes.

People lost their jobs, their homes and their lives to the flood. Image: Nationaal Archief/Flickr

How did the Watersnoodramp happen?

Over 20% of the Netherlands is below sea level and 50% is less than one meter above it. This means water management and living with water has always been an unmistakable part of Dutch history.

The North Sea is shaped like a funnel, so when a storm breaks from north or northwest and pushes the water southward it cannot drain. This causes the water to build up and raise the sea level further. It’s no surprise that the 1953 flood was not the first one. Similarly, in 1916, the Netherlands was struck by a separate flood which also took its toll.

On February 1, 1953, a northwestern storm was blowing during the spring tide. This meant the water level was already higher than it normally would have been. Adding to this, the wind pushed the water up to rise higher and higher, making the sea reach a record height of four to five meters above the average sea level.

READ MORE | The Dutch build cities on sinking land: how will this fare with climate change? 

The first dikes were breached between 4:00 and 6:00 AM on Sunday morning by the storm surge. In a short amount of time, 165,000 hectares of land was covered by seawater.

Many people were caught unprepared — in those days, there was no warning system to let people know. Over 1,800 victims perished in the Netherlands as a result of the flood.

From those who got the news, about 72,000 people were evacuated. Roads were destroyed and telephone lines were down. In many regions, the only transportation possible was by boat. Cattle died in droves, crops failed, and buildings were completely ruined.

Large parts of the provinces of South Holland, Zeeland, and North Brabant were flooded.

The devastation of the Watersnoodramp. Image: Agency for International Development/Wikimedia Commons/ Public domain.

The flooding in 1953 in the rest of Europe

The Netherlands was not the only country who felt the devastating effect of the 1953 flood. Countries like England, Belgium, and Germany were also hit.

According to the British Environment Agency 300 people died, about 24,000 houses were destroyed and 40,000 people were evacuated.

In Belgium, several dikes were breached and areas of Ostend and Antwerp were flooded. Up to 40 people lost their lives.

The Delta Works

After the disastrous results of the Watersnoodramp, it was unanimously agreed that protective measures be taken not just in the Netherlands, but in Europe. The iconic Thames barrier in Britain is one of the results.

READ MORE | Why the Netherlands isn’t underwater (VIDEO INSIDE)

In the Netherlands, the ideas were grander: The Delta Works. This is a system that we admire to this day. It’s consists of a system of dikes and storm surge barriers to protect low lying areas against flooding. These staggering solutions of engineering is still a big reminder that the North Sea will always impact the lives of the Dutch.

The Delta Works is a working process to handle flooding. In September 2008, reports showed that the Netherlands would need a massive new building program to strengthen the country’s water defenses against the effects of global warming. The plans included drawing up worst-case scenarios for evacuations and estimated costs at €100 billion. Yikes!

Lastly, here is a video to show the disastrous effects of the 1953 flood (in Dutch):

Feature Image: Agency for International Development/Wikimedia Commons/ Public domain.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2019, but was fully updated in February 2022 for your reading pleasure. 

Ceren Spuyman
Ceren Spuyman
Born and raised in Istanbul, Ceren moved when she decided to follow her own Dutchie. Being restless by nature, she is now busy with everything Dutch by majoring in Dutch Studies at Leiden University while living in Delft. Her hobbies are petting as many cats as possible.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Small technicality, the flood of 1953 was the biggest in modern times.

    There’s at least two which were bigger;
    St Elisabethsvloed 1421 – creating the Biesbosch and likely the moast deadly one
    The flood of somewhere around 1000 creating the Zuiderzee (currently known as the IJsselmeer

  2. My Mother had a baby 2 days later in Dordrecht. My sister. I arrived on the scene a few years later in Canada. Thank you for this article.

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