Bound between a rising sea and a river’s discharge, the Dutch are vigilant, perhaps even a little distrustful. In a month of cycling, this is the first place I’ve been advised to lock my bike, but there are still painful memories of the night of January 31, 1953 when strong winds met high spring tides and water levels in Zeeland, this western region of Holland, rose 18′ (5.6m) above mean. 1,835 people were killed here, and more at sea. 30,000 cows, sheep and goats drowned. The Dutch are wary of trouble, even as the cows graze placidly on the polder and windmills turn slowly overhead. 

    20% of this country is below sea level and 50% is less that 1m above it, so a little extra water does lots of harm. 

    Disaster often leads to development of policies and programs designed to prevent repeat devastation, so it’s no coincidence that shortly after the storm the Delta Program was formed and designed the Delta Works, an extensive system of dikes, dams and sand dune storm surge barriers (the public parking garage at the beach in Kanwijk is built into one of these dunes). 

    In Katwijk, just a few meters from where the Oude Rijn meets the sea, is Koning William Alexander Gemaal, a pump station run by the Water Board of this region. 

    One day a year pump stations across the country are open to the public to show the role they play in public health and national security, and to justify the watership taxes citizens pay, “your contribution to dry feet and clean water” says the website. But as this was not the public day, I was grateful for a tour by Simon, the manager of this impressive facility. 

    The station is essentially insurance against disaster. It is a series of pumps, run remotely by computer from the office 15km away in Leiden, and backups of backup energy systems so that if another 1953 perfect storm occurs, this station will push water from the land to keep feet dry. 

    Keeping the sea out, does also mean that migratory fish are prevented from entering the Rhine system. Tests have been made at this facility to show that the pump’s turbines don’t harm outmigrating eels, but the sluice gaps are too small for salmon and other mature fish to migrate in. In fact, along Holland’s entire coastline, only the man made, massively busy, Rotterdam canal provides unimpeded access to the Rhine’s extensive spawning habitat. But ICPR is making progress to improve this. 

    Simon did mention the irony of dumping sweet water into the sea, when other European nations, like Spain, were desperate for fresh water. But so it is in the Low Countries – can’t be too careful when you live below the sea. 


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