The Dutch and their Delta:
Living below sea level

Jacob Vossestein

Xpat Scriptum 2012
A book review by Danny Yee © 2018
Centred on the geography of the Netherlands water-land interface, The Dutch and their Delta spans everything from social history to engineering. In some ways it feels like a coffee-table book, with half the space devoted to high quality full-colour photographs, and it has aspects of a travel guide, covering many scattered topics briefly. It includes, however, a lot of material that wouldn't usually appear in either of those.

Vossestein begins with common questions asked by foreigners about living below sea level, followed by an overview of some of the most salient and symbolic aspects of Dutch landscape and life: ditches, rainfall, drinking water, windmills, wooden shoes and traditional costumes, skating and swimming, and so forth.

The Dutch delta is of relatively recent origin: 10,000 years ago much of the North Sea was land and even in Roman times the coastline was quite different. Much of the Netherlands has been produced by the deposition of sand and clay when the sea rose and of plant material when it fell: "The common case all over the west of the Netherlands is this: Bedrock is very deep down, out of reach for any building purpose."

"With water levels more under control and the population continually growing, the need for land increased, so people looked to the low and wet peat-lands behind the dikes. By letting out the water whenever necessary and possible, the peat grounds became a bit drier and easier to enter. By removing the top layer of peat for fuel, the ground surface went down in two ways: Not only was material removed but, more importantly, the soil dried out and started 'shrinking', or setting."

Vossestein then proceeds region by region. With Holland he looks at current tourist attractions as well as historical features: dunes, dikes, standardised sea level measurements, water towers, houseboats, old fortresses, and so forth. "The Far North" introduces the Wadden Sea, an untamed and unstable environment, with its islands eroding at their western tips and growing at their eastern ones (moving at up to 120 metres/year), and Friesland, briefly looking at its sporting traditions.

For North Holland, Vossestein gives a brief history of land reclamation and the polder system, windmills and the industrial Zaan area, and Amsterdam and its canals and canal houses.

"By 1600, then, there was this more-or-less safe 'island' at some 40km north of Amsterdam, but the rest of the area was a chaotic and often dangerous mixture of swampy land and water, with villages and agriculture always at risk, despite being on slightly higher grounds. Land reclamation on a tiny scale started around 1530. In the process, experimental techniques were tested, paving the way for larger projects a century later."

The Zuyder Zee is "the sea that came and went", with the key Asfluitsdijk causeway connecting North-Holland to Friesland finished in 1932, creating the IJsselmeer. Vossestein describes some of the engineering involved, but also touches on the distinct heritage and traditions of settlements such as Volendam, Enkhuizen and Urk, and the creation of the province of Flevoland in 1986.

The centre of Holland, along with Utrecht, forms a kind of "ring city", the Netherland's biggest economic and demographic concentration. Rather than its economics, however, Vossestein focuses on its patterns of settlement and drainage.

"This lowest area of all is now called 'the Green Heart', still emptier than the rest, so the Randstad lies indeed as an urban semi-circle, somewhat higher up, around a low and more rural central area. Towns sprang up in two different kinds of places: at river mouths and behind the dunes. ... 'dam towns' like Rotterdam and Schiedam grew where people had constructed dams to keep the sea out during storms. Just like Amsterdam, all such towns have a Dam square, situated at some distance inland from the tidal waters leading to the sea, since the river mouth could function as a protected harbor. Only in Rotterdam does the dam seem to be gone."

The big Dutch rivers, the Scheldt, the Maas, the Rhine and the Ems, pose their own engineering and management problems. Following disastrous flooding in 1953, a series of large-scale works were carried out to defend (and link) the southwestern islands of Zeeland. When the book went to press there were arguments over the deepening of the Scheldt to help shipping reach the Belgian port of Antwerp.

This is all rather scattered, but there are recurring themes in it and The Dutch and their Delta gives a feel for some of the broader patterns of Dutch geography as well as some fascinating details. It could serve as a general introduction to the Netherlands, but more plausibly as a supplement to a traditional guide book.

May 2018

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%T The Dutch and their Delta
%S Living below sea level
%A Vossestein, Jacob
%I Xpat Scriptum
%D 2012
%O hardcover, colour photographs, index
%G ISBN-13 9789055947881
%P 296pp