Before I moved to the Netherlands, I didn’t know a whole lot about the country. I knew the stereotypes of windmills and clogs and cheese; and dikes. Except when I imagined dikes (or dijks) I thought of great big walls around the edges of the country to keep the water out. I had heard somewhere the folktale of the little boy who plugged his finger into a hole in the dike and saved the country from flooding. It wasn’t until I moved here that I discovered;
1) That story isn’t even remotely based on fact, because – 2) Dikes don’t look at all how you imagine them.
Of course, now that I live here I have discovered a lot more about Dutch culture and dikes; and that the Dutch are really quite ingenious when it comes to this thing called Dutch engineering and water management!
The Legend of Hans Brinker and the Leaky Dike
The little boy who stuck his finger in the dike actually comes from an American novel called “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates”. The entire story was created by American novelist Mary Elizabeth Mapes Dodge. The story about the boy and the dike is actually a chapter from the novel called ‘The Hero of Haarlem’ and became so well-known and popular among American tourists that they would be quite crestfallen when they came to the Netherlands and nobody was able to show them the dike that Hans Brinker had plugged up, thus saving the country from drowning! You can read more about the story (and the statue that the Dutch eventually erected to appease the American tourists!) here.
Dutch Engineering & Real Dutch Dikes
So, as we’ve established, the story isn’t real, and Dutch dikes don’t look like giant walls. What do they look like then? Well mostly like this:
Because most of the Netherlands is technically below sea level, the Dutch have used a lot of engineering and water management techniques to prevent flooding and provide more land for the population of the country to inhabit. And it’s not really an exaggeration that if the dikes were destroyed half the country would drown. This photo shows how much of the country would be flooded without the complicated system of dikes, dams, floodgates (and natural sand dunes):
In fact, if not for a major causeway called the Afsluitdijk, I would be swimming right now!
The Aflsuitdijk is a major causeway (the biggest dike?) that connects the provinces of North Holland and Friesland, and was constructed in order to dam off the Zuiderzee (an inlet of the North Sea) and create the lake IJsselmeer.
As you can also see, the parts in green used to be below sea level. I now live in the province of Flevoland which didn’t even exist before the 1950s! One of the cool parts about the Afsluitdijk is that you can drive over it and see the freshwater IJsselmeer lake on one side of the road/dike, and the saltwater Wadden Sea on the other side. There’s also a handy car-park and lookout roughly in the middle so that you can stop and take photographs, although you might want to try to go on a day with nicer weather than I did!
The Dutch are so good at managing the sea and preventing floods that after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, some engineers and architects started working with Dutch water experts to help the city build a better flood management system. Hopefully ensuring to prevent a similar disaster re-occurring.
Other Feats of Dutch Engineering
Not only are the Dutch very clever when it comes to managing water, but they are also ingenious builders of other things too. If you have seen one of those photos floating around the internet of wildlife eco-crossings that go over the highway; it was probably taken in the Netherlands. There are also canals that go over highways, enabling boats to travel inland. It’s a very strange feeling to see a boat going over you (in water) while you’re driving. And lets not forget their prowess when it comes to windmills, moveable bridges and bicycle infrastructure! What are your favourite things the Dutch have built or designed or other feats of Dutch engineering? Let us know in the comments!