Much of the Netherlands lies below sea level. When the Ice Age ended ten thousand years ago, the sea level rose and the North Sea came into being. The land was uninhabitable and it was only after many centuries that it gradually developed into peat bogs.
The struggle against the sea
The struggle against the sea began the moment the first inhabitants settled in the Netherlands. These people settled on the high windward shores. They lived from hunting, fishing and small farming. They built refuge mounds to which they fled at high water. The Romans introduced the first real hydraulic works into our country. They built --- though not in the Delta --- the first dam, in the Rhine River valley near Kleef. And they dug the first canals, such as the Vliet near Voorburg which connects the Oude Rijn (old Rhine) and the Schie.
Defence against the sea
It was not until about the 10th c that the inhabitants turned to keeping the sea at bay: the first dikes appeared along the coasts --- simple low embankments which were constructed by men using spades and baskets and which gave way to every serious onslaught of the sea.
The diking-in of new land, work done mainly by the abbeys, created excess polder water that had to be drained off. At first, outlet sluices were built to drain off the polder water at low tide. With the invention of the windmill about 600 years ago, more and deeper polders could be kept dry.
Floods through the ages
The primitive dikes of the early Middle Ages provided only inadequate protection against the sea. Not a century passed without the land being struck by floods. Between 1000 and 1953, there were no less than 111 serious and less serious floods in the western part of the Netherlands.
In the 19th century, new materials, techniques and machinery such as concrete, stone pitching's on the sea walls, and steam engines led to improved and stronger dikes. But the sea would not be restrained. Floods occurred in the Netherlands well into the 20th century: in 1906, in 1916 and in 1953 --- when in the night of Saturday to Sunday, February 1st, the most devastating flood disaster in centuries struck.
Storm surges from 813 to 1916
The term ‘storm surge' applies when the wind has pushed the water level far up above the mean sea level. In Zeeland the mean level is generally 1.5 m above the average high tide. In the past two centuries, the Dutch coast has often been deluged by floods. A short overview of the most violent floods follows.
December 26, 838: The oldest reliable report of a huge storm surge along the Dutch coast comes from a French bishop who wrote that almost all of Frisia, or the entire Dutch coastal area, had been flooded.
November 19, 1404: 1st Saint Elizabeth's Day Flood. Large parts of Flanders and Zeeland were inundated. The Grote Waard disappeared under the waters and the Hollands Diep came into being.
November 18, 1421: 2nd Saint Elizabeth's Day Flood in Holland, Zeeland and Flanders. The flood caused the formation of the Biesbosch.
November 5, 1530: On "Sint Felix Quade Saterdach' (Saint Felix's Day), an enormous storm surge caused the islands of Noord-Beveland and Sint Philipsland to disappear.
November 1, 1570: All Saints' Day Flood. This storm surge caused great damage to the islands of Zeeland.
31 July and August 4, 1574: Storm surges. The Schielandse Hoge Zeedijk (sea dike) burst in sixteen places.
January 26, 1682: Spring flood tide during northwester storm. In Zeeland, 161 polders were flooded. The first storm surge to be well-documented.
January 15, 1808: Storm surge in Zeeland and Flanders. Resulted in a general raising of the dikes.
January 13-14, 1916: Storm surge. Much damage around the Zuiderzee. Led to construction of the Zuiderzeewerken (Zuider Zee works).
February 1, 1953: Flood disaster. Immediate cause of the Delta works.