For centuries, the Netherlands has suffered from catastrophic floods. As the rest of the world now reckons with the same fate, the Dutch are sharing–and selling–what they’ve learned.
Huib de Vriend was five years old when the great flood of 1953 hit. It was a chilly Saturday night, and the local radio stations had gone off the air at their usual hour near bedtime, just before the full force of the storm blew in. What shook young Huib more than the whistle of the wind or the thrum of the rain was the panic in his grandmother’s voice. “She was yelling: ‘The water is coming! The water is coming!’” he recalls. That was when he knew something was wrong. His grandmother was usually a voice of calm in the family.
They fled to the attic. Huib’s father ventured down to the ground floor, which had filled like a bathtub, to raid the pantry for provisions. A few days later, soldiers arrived in dinghies to help the de Vriends evacuate to their local church, which was built on the village’s highest ground; not long after, they were moved by rail to a town 10 miles away, where Huib attended kindergarten for several weeks before his family was allowed to return home. “Only later did I realize that my grandmother belonged to the generations with an inbred fear of water,” he says. “She never even learned to swim. It was not normal to swim. So you can imagine that even a meter of water was enough to make them nervous.”
The de Vriends survived, but more than 1,800 of their compatriots did not. Three hundred thousand Dutch were left homeless, and one-tenth of the nation’s farmland flooded. The famously pragmatic Queen Juliana, who had banned her subjects from bowing and curtseying to her, pulled on rubber boots to join the relief effort. “God,” she declared, “now calls upon our powers of resilience.”
In the Netherlands, that resilience ultimately meant far more than a season or two of furious rebuilding. De Vriend grew up to become a coastal and fluvial morphologist, a kind of scientist that studies the dynamics of shores and rivers. Though he insists the floodwaters did not set his career path, he acknowledges that “you don’t forget something like that.” (He also learned to swim.) He meanwhile became part of a growing army of engineers, designers, and scientists who since 1953 have made it their life’s mission to work with water, as the Netherlands built itself into the world’s premier laboratory for how to tame the rivers and the seas. Today, the country’s ideas and expertise may be its most valuable export. “Retreat is not an option, though we know it’s dangerous. The only option is to protect ourselves,” says Free University of Amsterdam professor Jeroen Aerts, the world’s foremost expert in flood-risk management. “If we invest right now in innovative measures, we can avoid a lot of damage in the future.”
Visitors who come to the Netherlands in the hopes of seeing a foolproof system of flood control that they can easily duplicate back in their home countries are bound to be disappointed. The Dutch have learned the hard way that no single solution will suffice. Their rebuilding efforts since 1953 have evolved away from post-disaster clichés–We’ll show the storm who’s boss!–to something far more sophisticated. What you see there now, especially what has been built in the past few years, is indeed the architecture of the future, as the fight against rising tides goes global. But it’s also the attitude of the future. The Dutch have lately been working with nature instead of battling it, lowering barriers against the water instead of raising them. They’re harnessing the power of the cloud–enormous amounts of data and cutting-edge computer modeling–to predict the consequences of the clouds. They’re building seawalls so beautiful you wouldn’t recognize them. And as I discovered, the most important lessons they are trying to impart might not be about dikes and dunes at all.
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