Infrastructure Past, Present, and Future Casebook/Dutch Dikes

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Summary of Dutch Dikes

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The Ditch Dikes are Netherland's most important invention. Dikes are man-built buildings that protect against natural factors such as water, temperature, and altitude. They are generally composed of local materials. Various degrees and intensities of flooding have occurred in the Netherlands over the ages, from rivers as well as the sea. With the country being below sea level, The area is vulnerable and at a constant threat of experiencing floods. To prevent future floods, the Netherlands created their most important invention, which is the Dikes [1]. A dike is a barrier used to prevent and hold back water from a river, lake, or ocean. This invention provided defense against storm surges from the sea; it helped to solve the most important issue to the vulnerable, densely populated country from flooding. The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the Dutch Dikes, Netherlands Protection Works, as one of the great wonders of the modern world. [21]

Timeline of Events

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8th century

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For millennia, the Dutch have been building dams, dikes, and other flood defenses. Because of the frequent floods, the early residents of the Netherlands located their villages on hills. The Dutch constructed their first dams, dikes, and dunes in the eighth century. The Netherlands' flood defenses increased as the country became wealthier and more popular. [8]

1918-1975, Zuiderzee Works

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On 1918 June 14th, The Dutch parliament passed the law establishing the Zuiderzee Works. In Dutch, Zuirderzee means “Southern Sea”. The Dutch's Zuirderzee work refers to Lely’s plan of building dams and dikes to close off the Zuiderzee and turn it into a lake. The goal of this closure was to guard the Southern Sea from flooding. [10]

Using Lely’s plan, In the 1930s, the Netherlands built the Afsluitdijk; connecting between north and west of the Netherlands while closing off the Southen Sea to safeguard and protect the Netherlands' center region from flooding. In 1932 the dike was finished and on September 25th, 1933, the Afsluitdijk was officially opened. [9]

Between 1937- 1942, artificial lands were reclaimed on the Southern Sea to use as agricultural lands to safeguard food for the people of the Netherlands. The first reclaimed land, Wieringermeerpolder was constructed between 1927–1930, followed by Noordoostpolder in 1937–1942, Oostelijk Flevoland in1950–1957, and Zuidelijk Flevoland in 1959–1968. These lands provide nearly ten percent of the total arable lands in the country. [11]

Later between 1963-1975, the Houtribdijk dike with two artificial islands was built to complete the Zuirderzee works and connects between the Enkhuizen and the Flevolands while dividing the IJsselmeer river into northern and southern parts. [12]

1950-1997, Delta Works

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On the night of 31st January 1953, a disaster flood occurred when the North Sea attacked with a ferocity that dramatically destroyed and deconstructed the country. This caused the Dutch government to implement Van Veen's plan to close the estuaries in the southwestern region of the Netherlands. [6]

Delta works were named after the delta region of the three rivers (Meuse, Scheldt, and Rhyne), in which most of the floods came in. The planned work was focused on the delta region, therefore, they built dikes to connect the three rivers which would result in being flood defenders that would protect the Southwestern part of the Netherlands, also known as Zeeland. There are thirteen delta works that successfully created protection against flooding in the Zeeland region from the North Sea. All of the projects were built between 1954 and 1997, and none of the dikes built have ever failed since they were put into service.

In 1958, Delta's work first flood defender was built-in Hollandsche IJssel. Followed by Zandkreekdam in 1960, Veerse Gatdam in 1961, Grevelingendam in 1965, Volkerakdam in 1969, Haringvlietdam in 1971, Brouwersdam in 1972 Oosterscheldekering in 1986 Bathse Spuisluis, Oesterdam, and Philipsdam in 1987 Maeslantkering and Hartelkering in 1997. [7]

File:Delta Works.png
The Thirteen Delta Works built around the Delta Region in Zeeland (Southwest Netherlands).

Annotated List of Actors

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-Engineer Cornelis Lely designed the Zuiderzee works plan. With the Netherlands being vulnerable to floods, Lely drew up the basic design plan of building dikes and dams to prevent and hold back the water. The Afsluitdijk was constructed based on Lely’s plan which was first developed in 1892. [13]

- Engineer Johan Van Veen: he is considered the father of the Delta Works for acquiring great urgency for flood defenses after the disaster of 1953 flood. His warning described the risks and included a flood defenses plan in the Southwestern region of the Netherlands (now called the Delta Works plan). [14]

- In 1957, the flood defenses plan of the Delta Works was passed by the Dutch Parliament. A year later the senate and Queen Juliana signed it to begin the work. [15]

Funding and financing

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Considering the funding and financing of the Dutch dikes system, each dike has its own story as they were not simultaneously built. Talking about the Delta Works system of dikes is a series of construction projects in the southwest of the Netherlands to protect a large area of land around the Rhine–Meuse–Scheldt delta from the sea. Constructed between 1954 and 1997, the works consist of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers located in the provinces of South Holland and Zeeland.

The aim of the dams, sluices, and storm surge barriers was to shorten the Dutch coastline, thus reducing the number of dikes that had to be raised. Along with the Zuiderzee Works, the Delta Works have been declared one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

The projects of the Delta system are financed with the Delta Fund corporation. In 1958, when the Delta law was accepted under the Delta Works Commission, the total costs were estimated at 3.3 billion guilders. The Delta works were financed by Netherlands’ national budget, with a contribution of the Marshall Plaof n 400 million guilders. In addition, the Dutch natural gas discovery contributed massively to the finance of the project. At completion in 1997, costs were set n 8.2 billion guilders [2]. However, in 2012 the total costs were already set at around $13 billion [3].

Due to climate change and relative sea-level rise, the dikes will eventually have to be made higher and wider. The needed level of flood protection and the resulting costs are a recurring subject of debate and involve a complicated decision-making process. In 1995 it was agreed in the Delta Plan Large Rivers and Room for the River projects that about 500 kilometers of insufficient dyke revetments were reinforced and replaced along the Oosterschelde and Westerschelde between 1995 and 2015. After 2015, under the High-Water Protection Program, additional upgrades are made.

In September 2008, the Delta Commission presided by a politician Cees Veerman advised in a report that the Netherlands would need a massive new building program to strengthen the country's water defenses against the anticipated effects of global warming for the next 190 years. The plans included drawing up worst-case scenarios for evacuations and included more than €100 billion, or $144 billion, in new spending through the year 2100 for measures, such as broadening coastal dunes and strengthening sea and river dikes. The commission said the country must plan for a rise in the North Sea of 1.3 meters by 2100 and 4 meters by 2200 [4].

Zuider Zee Works

Considering the Zuiderzee Works, is a man-made system of dams and dikes, land reclamation, and water drainage work, in total the largest hydraulic engineering project undertaken by the Netherlands during the twentieth century. The project involved the damming of the Zuiderzee, a large, shallow inlet of the North Sea, and the reclamation of land in the newly enclosed water using polders. Its main purposes are to improve flood protection and create additional land for agriculture.

The first step in the plan was to enclose the Zuiderzee by building a 20-mile-long dam across the bay. Something like this had never been done before, so the Dutch engineers made the wise decision to start by building a much shorter dam out to the island of Wieringen which would form the first part of the enclosure of the bay. The experience gained in the exercise was valuable when the longer dam, the Afsluitdijk, was built from the other side of Wieringen across the bay to the village of Zurich in 1927.

The Afsluitdijk project consists of the design, reconstruction, financing, operation, and maintenance of a 32km dyke that runs between Friesland and Den Oever in North Holland.

The existing structure is over 85 years old and is an important Dutch landmark. However, its flood control capacity does not meet modern standards. The Afsluitdijk was first completed in 1932 and closed off the saltwater Zuiderzee, turning it into a freshwater lake known today as IJsselmeer. Total funding for the project amounts to roughly 835 million Euros ($974 million). Lenders will provide around €815 million, guaranteed by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI).

Long-term debt amounts to €660 million, of which the European Investment Bank (EIB) will provide €330 million under a 30-year facility. Additionally, there are two milestone facilities for a total of €100 million, and an equity bridge loan of about €60 million.

The lenders on the deal comprise:

  • Belfius Bank
  • DekaBank
  • EIB
  • KfW IPEX-Bank
  • Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW)
  • Rabobank

KfW IPEX-Bank will provide about €124 million, with DekaBank and LBBW lending similar amounts. Contributions from Belfius Bank and Rabobank are smaller. Rabobank will not provide long-term debt. Pricing on the debt is partly fixed and partly floating, with the floating-rate portion covered by interest rate swaps. Pricing on the long-term debt for this availability-based scheme is thought to be between 100bp and 110bp over Euribor.

This level was considered too low for many of the banks which have provided debt for Dutch infrastructure PPPs in the past, meaning they did not lend on this deal and are unlikely to be involved in the upcoming transactions, some have said. The tenor on long-term commercial debt is 25 years post-construction, or around 30 years in total. While no institutional investors are lending to the project, a limited sell down of debt is envisaged for after the financial close with German institutional investors expected to take interest. However, this is not expected to amount to a substantial proportion of the overall debt [5].

Institutional arrangements:

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The barrier, which spanned 32 kilometers and held back the Wadden Sea, was one of the biggest technical accomplishments of its day, and it is credited with sparing huge portions of the nation from catastrophic floods in 1953. However, while the Afsluitdijk has remained stable for over a century, increasing sea levels and heavier storms mean that Dutch authorities are now investing USD $617 million to fortify the structure so that it can resist a one-in-ten-thousand-year storm event. This nation-saving seawall is being supersized by using 75,000 concrete blocks, building additional drainage locks, and utilizing cutting-edge technology. When the building of the Afsluitdijk began in 1927, it was one of the world's greatest ventures of its kind, requiring more than 36 million cubic meters of material to span the 32-kilometer mouth of the Zuiderzee. Ships began dredging material and dropping it straight into the bottom in four sites throughout the length of the dyke until it broke the surface. While numerous modest renovations and enhancements have been done to the dike in recent years, increasing sea levels and an increase in the frequency and intensity of storms have left the dike in desperate need of serious reinforcement - and 2019 witnessed the commencement of a major strengthening project. While extending the height of the Afsluitdijk was explored, this option would need significantly more material and would significantly increase the project's cost.[18]

Dikes Engineers will instead reinforce the dike by placing a layer of concrete reinforcing blocks throughout its length, avoiding erosion and breaches during severe storms. Each of these blocks will be microchipped to make future tracing and maintenance easier. While passive sluice gates were originally placed into the barrier to discharge water from the lake twice daily at low tides, the difference in water level on each side of the dike at low tide is no longer sufficient to provide for adequate drainage to the Wadden Sea. Two of Europe's largest pumping stations will be erected near the sluice gates to prevent the lake from being swamped by the rivers that feed it. The dyke's locks will also be extended to allow for easier boat access, and the A7 causeway will be widened.[19]

Narrative of the Case

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The evolvement of dikes of carefully stacked clay to pile dikes into high-tech sensor dikes did not happen overnight. Already in Roman times, small dikes and dams were created. A look into the long Dutch tradition of dike building gives us insight on a deeply rooted culture of trial and error in a country where the sea level rises and the ground level is dropping. History shows that either a big flood or a tiny worm, but also national welfare can lead to big consequences and shifts in the flood protection system. Key moments in the ever-evolving dike network are described over different dike periods [1].

The Netherlands witnessed little dike-building activity in the early Middle Ages. With the departure of the Romans began a period of political instability and population decline. From the eighth century, we see renewed, if slow, population growth, after which the population of the Netherlands increased tenfold between 800 and 1250. Once again settlements were formed in the salt marshes, which abounded in fish and in grazing pastures for livestock. On a small scale, streams were dammed and low dikes built, following the contours of the existing differences in elevation.

In the fourteenth century, the combined effects of soil subsidence and rising sea levels meant, in many parts of the Low Countries, that sea level and ground level converged to the same height. This was the period that saw the first large-scale building of dikes. The population was falling in some parts of Europe, as a result of economic recession and a succession of epidemics, but the Netherlands, especially Holland, was doing relatively well.

In the period between 1500 and 1800, the Netherlands became ever more prosperous and witnessed rapid population growth, although the graph displays peaks and troughs. The acme of the Golden Age was in the first half of the seventeenth century. Large-scale hydraulic engineering works such as land reclamation, polders and largescale peat extraction were organized by collectives, with interested parties joining forces for the purpose.

Dike builders had gradually switched to constructions with low-gradient outer slopes. To strengthen dikes, stony materials were added to the dike revetment. Most of the stone was transported from Norway by sea and from Belgium along the major rivers to the Netherlands. In addition, a great many dolmens or hunebedden were demolished to reinforce the coastal defenses. From 1900 onwards, materials such as concrete blocks were developed, mass-produced and transported in large numbers. Advances in knowledge, technology and mobility made large-scale interventions in the water system possible, culminating in the Zuider Zee works.

The Zuider Zee had only just been closed off when the next calamity presented itself, this time in the southwest coastal region. In 1953, a rare combination of spring tide, a north-north-west storm and high water in the rivers caused a national disaster. In Zeeland, the islands of South Holland and West Brabant, there were widespread dike breaches. The North Sea Flood claimed more than 1,800 lives and caused immense damage. An area measuring some 1,650 square kilometers of land was flooded.

The North Sea Flood provided an impetus for a large number of new hydraulic works: the Delta Plan. The Netherlands must be protected from suffering any repeat of the disaster in the future. The sea inlets should be closed off, with the exception of the Nieuwe Waterweg and the Western Scheldt, thus making the coastline much shorter and far easier to defend. Parliament passed the Delta Act in 1958 and the construction commenced. The Act prescribed the criteria to be met by the dikes along the coast and rivers as well as their height. It was the beginning of an era of drastic and large-scale reinforcements of the dikes.

Policy Issues

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The Netherlands looks to have made the transition from flood defense to flood risk management, in line with the rest of Western Europe. The flood catastrophes around the turn of the Millennium demonstrated the ineffectiveness of institutional and technical arrangements, ushering in flood risk management measures that "create space for the river," according to a compelling and widely propagated tale (K. Krieger 2013, unpublished manuscript). Krieger, on the other hand, demonstrates that for the United Kingdom and Germany, this statement is considerably too simple. History is essential. Krieger contends that organizational variables, specifically sets of norms, processes, and frameworks, can explain the disparities in flood management decisions made in Germany and England, and he advocates for a comparative test in the Netherlands and France, which have different state traditions. These policies make more sense for Netherlands because they are the most venerable to flood. Policys are a changing factor for Netherlands because it’s at a venerable place and situation changes depending on the weather and future climate. But there are some ground rules with stays the same such as:

1. A legally anchored funding scheme to keep the dike rings up to the level of the legally binding flood protection standards. This cost is pooled between the national Treasury and the regional authorities.

2. Responsibilities for flood protection are allocated to dedicated organizations: the national agency of public (water) works and the regional water boards.

3. The Expertise Network for Flood Protection (ENW). This institutionalized network of flood risk management experts, mostly civil engineers, has existed since 1965. ENW gives requested and unrequested advice to the ministry of infrastructure and environment. Their advice is literally always adopted.

4. Legal standards for flood risk and accompanying legal assessment (Wettelijk Tots Instrumentarium) and design guidelines for how to maintain flood defenses (Leidraden) consisting of extensive guidelines and technical reports.

These are some of the rules that has laid by Dutch National Water Plan.[17]

After the publication of the NWP reposts based on the flood data Netherlands government passed an act called the Delta Act. This act follows as:

1. New flood protection standards will be set these will not only be linked to the probability of flooding. but also, to the impact of a flood (risk-based approach). The scope of the impact is the decisive factor in setting the standard.

2. The availability of freshwater for agriculture, industry, and nature will become more predictable.

3. Spatial planning will become more climate-proof and water robust

Also, as I have mentioned above the plan changes due to constant climate change in the world, they have added some more rules over the years, such as:

1. 2011: The publication of a more explorative approach of the first series of pilot locations in the Netherlands that are considered suitable for MLS. The main conclusion of this report is that MLS is approached enthusiastically and energetically and that there is a strong desire of the involved local and regional authorities to explore the opportunities of MLS further.

2. 2012: To calculate the effectiveness of possible MLS measures, a toolkit was developed funded by the knowledge organization of the regional water authorities and the Delta Programme.[20]

Lessons learned / takeaways

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 The Netherlands played a role model in showing how water and flood can be managed using engineering innovations. This gives inspiration for countries and governments to try to resist nature and fight natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and many more incidents where it is deadly dangerous. This also must be taken into consideration especially when our familiar world might change due to global warming and climate change that will directly impact our lives.  

Discussion Question

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1. How would you evaluate the effort of Dutch Dikes?

2. How effective do you think these Dikes will be in future, especially with climate change?


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-“Dutch Dikes.” History. [1]

-Aerts, J.C.J.H. “Adaptation Cost in the Netherlands: Climate Change and Flood Risk Management.” Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Climate Changes Spatial Planning and Knowledge for Climate, 1 Jan. 1970. [2]

-Higgins, Andrew. “Lessons for U.S. from a Flood-Prone Land.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Nov. 2012. [3]

-“Dutch Draw up Drastic Measures to Defend Coast against Rising Seas.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 3 Sept. 2008. [4]

- Author, Beatrice Mavroleon Contact, et al. “Afsluitdijk PPP, the Netherlands.” IJGlobal. [5]

- “Johan Van Veen.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., [6]

- “Delta Works.” Watersnoodmuseum, [7]

- “Why The Netherlands Isn’t Flooding (Anymore).” YouTube, uploaded by History Scop, 1 Feb. 2020. [8]

- “Brouwers Dam.” Watersnoodmuseum. [9]

- “Zuiderzee.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. [10]

- Nijhuis, Steffen. “The Noordoostpolder: A Landscape Planning Perspective on the Preservation and Development of Twentieth-Century Polder Landscapes in the Netherlands.” SpringerLink, Springer International Publishing, 1 Jan. 1970. [11]

-“Sailing the IJsselmeer.” Catharina Van Mijdrecht, 20 Apr. 2015. [12]

- The Afsluitdijk. [13]  

-“Delta Project.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. [14]

- “The Memory.” The Delta Works - The Memory. [15]

- Buuren, Arwin van. Ellen, Gerald Jan., and Jeroen F. Warner. Path-dependency and policy learning in the Dutch delta: toward more resilient flood risk management in the Netherlands? Jstore. [16]

- Mostert, E. 2006. Integrated water resources management in the Netherlands: how concepts function. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education 135(1):19-27. [17]

-2020, Dan Cortese22 July, et al. “The Sea Wall That Saved a Nation.” The B1M, 22 July 2020, [18]

-Rammel, C., S. Stagl, and M. Wilfing, 3007. Managing complex adaptive systems a co-evolutionary perspective on natural resource management. Ecological Economios 63(1):9-21. [19]

-Vogt, Berber "The Afsluitdijk as a Complex System",29 May 2019. [20]

- Jean-Louis Briaud, et al. “Civil Engineers Create Wonders of the World.” ASCE American Society of Civil Engineers, 1 July 2021. [21]