The Dutch Battle Between Land and Sea: Victory, For Now

 Correction wording flood risks for the Netherlands in IPCC report

Maps, generally speaking, display outlines and borders of countries, continents, and cities with asymmetrical and visually abstract lines that often change and morph over time, usually as a result of some shift in power or territorial dispute. Take the coastal border of the Netherlands, the city of Amsterdam in particular, as an example of a dynamically shifting border that over time has seen drastic land and seascape changes. But what sets Amsterdam apart from other borders and plays a formidable role in the city’s past and present is that the land along the sea has not changed because of conquest by foreign adversaries, but rather because it has been slowly eaten away during a steady, assiduous battle between people, their land, and the sea. 

The Netherlands are home to some of the lowest geographic areas in the world, with Zuidplaspolder being one of the lowest points in Western Europe. Unlike other low points on earth that are natural formations, the points of the Netherlands that lay below sea level are a byproduct of human intervention and innovative engineering. Specifically, the Dutch have developed over many centuries a variety of ways to obstruct the rise of sea levels and protect the lives and livelihoods of the people that live in danger of oceanic natural disaster. Through the construction of dikes and polders, water management has become an ingrained component of Dutch life, as commonplace as a bike path through a park or a bridge over a river. But given the unusually consequential role that water has played in the culture of the Netherlands, how exactly do the Dutch view the sea? Have they come to see the ocean as an enemy and a threat? Or have they developed respect and reverence for the forces of nature? Literature can offer insight into what perspectives are held by this society that has been pioneering the fight against rising sea levels since the 13th century–not just in matters of politics and environmentalism, but as an innate part of the Dutch psyche and vision of the world.

In his work “Young Titans”, Dutch writer Nescio illustrates many aspects of life within his country through the eyes of a group of young men that take unique journeys through life. At times during the piece, Nescio draws reference to nature and the landscapes around the characters, hinting at a strong connection between adolescence and the natural world:

“They sat on the stones down on the dike with eyes half closed and looked through their eyelashes at the little arrows of dancing gold that the sun made in the water. The sight made Bavnik go mad; he wanted to run across the long, long, glittering stripe all the way to the sun. But he stopped at the water’s edge after all and stood there,” (Nescio).

This passage generates the notion that it has become ingrained in Dutch culture to view the ocean as a border; it stands as a hard stop, even more so than traditional land borders. Nescio also pushes this idea through the lifecycle of Bavink, a “young titan” who is driven mad by his perception of the sun as it sets on the ocean horizon. At one point, Bavink says of the sunset “It just looks at me, neither of us know what to do with each other,” (Nescio). Perhaps this is representative of the deeply innate feelings about the ocean within Dutch culture, that it stands as an opponent, often engaged with in battle and frequently dubbed the victor as it was within the context of Bavink’s mind.

It should be acknowledged that while the image of the sea certainly played a part in driving Bavink mad, it also pushed him to greatness and success within the art world as his attempts to capture the sunset on canvas fetched high prices after his institutionalization. Just as it drove him to creativity and notoriety, so has it driven the Dutch to spectacular innovation and sustainability. The problems posed by the formidable existence of the sea have been precursors to great achievements within the fields of engineering, architecture, agriculture, and sustainable development, not only for the Dutch people, but humanity as a whole. The country widely recognizes the threat of climate change given that they are most at risk to the consequential reality of rising sea levels. Ranking 9th overall out of 193 countries (UNSDG) participating in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals initiative, the Netherlands has made serious strides in redefining the relationship between land and water within their country, and have been working to eliminate the threat posed to their people by globally rising sea levels. Areas of great achievement in the fight against climate change have been a drastic reduction in carbon emissions embodied in fossil fuel exports, as well as an Annual mean concentration of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter (UNSDG). While only pieces of a larger puzzle, achievements like these are essential to the sustainable development movement and will play a key role in fighting the dangerous effects of climate change that threaten the entirety of coastal cities like Amsterdam. 

The architectural designs of the Netherlands stand as a true testament to the impact that water has on life there, with cities like Rotterdam only existing as a result of water management. In his piece “Falls Flat”, Aaron Betsky travels through his city of Rotterdam while drawing connections between the features of his surroundings and how water has largely shaped the infrastructure and cityscape around him. “Were it not for the dikes and series of unseen water pumps working away day and night, my house would also disappear beneath the combined waters of the North Sea and the Rhine…Around my house, picturesque ponds and a grid of small canals remind me of the system of drainage that has made this place safe for human occupation for the last few centuries,” (Betsky). He truly captures the functional relationship between water and land in the Netherlands by highlighting the interconnectedness of farmland and water management systems. “It is the order of meadows interspersed with drainage canals running perpendicular to the main road that is the dominant tone of most of the Dutch landscape,” (Betsky). Betsky makes clear that one cannot traverse the Dutch landscape without being made distinctly aware of how the sea threatens everyday life there, and how the Dutch have, against all odds, made life possible there for far longer than the ocean wished it would be. 

Fictional and nonfictional insights prove the complicated, inescapable relationship between the Dutch and the sea. While the native people vividly see the tangible risk posed by their deeply situated coastline, they find pride in their centuries-long campaign to beat back the forces of nature in order to allow the continuation of the Dutch story. Luckily, the successful strides being made thus far to prevent climate disaster indicate that this trend of Dutch resilience is far from over. 

Works Cited

False Flat Why Dutch Design Is so Good, by Aaron Betsky and Adam Eeuwens, Phaidon, 2008.

Young Titans, by Nescio, New York Review Books.

“Netherlands Profile.” Sustainable Development Report 2020, 

Correction wording flood risks for the Netherlands in IPCC report


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