Today I would like to talk about the large walls that hold back rivers, otherwise known as dikes. They are defining characteristic of the Dutch landscape, with approximately 18.000 km’s running through the Netherlands.
When I think back to my childhood, I see grassland and, in the distance, a dike. The small river Aa was hidden behind this grand mountain.
The river meandered through a small forest and as a child, I played there a lot — running, climbing, ice-skating, building huts, and sailing on rafts. I am not sure, but I guess we had our swimming diplomas as part of a national swimming programme. All children around five years old had swimming lessons so we always felt safe.
Until one day at the end of January 1995. I remember walking to the dike after experiencing constant rain for the months of December and January. The level of all Dutch rivers had risen rapidly due to the inflow of rain and melt water from the rivers of the Maas, Waal and Rhine.
Dike caretakers from the Water Authorities were walking around, keeping an eye on the strength of the dike and placing sandbags at some weaker points. I stood on top of the dike and could almost touch the water with my feet. I thought to myself “what happens when the dikes collapse?”.
We watched tv and experts presented what could happen. After weeks of danger and uncertainty, 250,000 people were swiftly evacuated. The flooding of that year caused the largest evacuation in the Netherlands since World War II.
Thankfully disaster didn’t strike and the Netherlands embraced the flood like an old friend. I remember “1995” as the near miss that united the Netherlands. Maybe we need these kinds of disasters to realise how vulnerable we are.
As I grew older I learnt to look further than the Netherlands. I visited Bangladesh a couple of times and became aware that many people have to deal with this (near-) flood experience on a yearly or even daily base. Coastal communities in low-lying Bangladesh have to continuously adapt to flooding, salt-water intrusion and more powerful cyclones.
Rafiqul Montu from our partner organisation Coastal Journalism Network wrote a story about exactly this. It can be found in our Tweet of the Week.