Photo credit: Ari W. Epstein

From artificial beaches maintained by natural ocean currents, to projects that make extra room for rivers flowing through cities, the Dutch know how to protect themselves from water. And each of these systems is also designed to meet other needs of the community it serves. We’re going to need to learn how to do that too.

Television sound from the 1953 flood courtesy of Sound and Vision, via Deltawerken Mediagallery.


[Crashing waves and seagulls]

Narrator 1: There’s this town called Petten, right on the western coast of the Netherlands. A hundred years ago, if you had looked up Petten on a map, it wouldn’t be where it is now. And it would be different from where it was in 1701, and different again from where it was in 1421.

Narrator 2: Petten, or at least a village of that name, has existed in four different locations in the Netherlands over the past 600 years. So where did the first three Pettens go?

Lawrence Lishout: Over there you see a lot of things on the beach. It marks the old Petten. The village right now, this is the fourth Petten. Two Pettens are gone in the sea, including the people. The third Petten is demolished by the Germans in the war.

Narrator 1: That's Lawrence Lishout—he’s the treasurer of the Petten town council. He’s standing on a massive sand hill, pointing across a range of sand dunes towards the beach and the ocean beyond. The dunes act as a barrier- behind them is a dike…

Narrator 2: …which is a long artificial wall, built to prevent flooding from the sea.

Narrator 1: And behind that dike is the current village of Petten. On the other side of the tall dunes there's a large beach and expansive ocean. That's where Petten used to be. You can distantly see wooden posts sticking up from the water, a ghostly reminder of the structures that used to house the people of Petten.

[Soft piano music]

Narrator 2: Hundreds of years ago, the two oldest Pettens used to be above the ocean line. But due to two severe floods, the Pettens and the land surrounding them were washed away by the sea. And until very recently, the land where the beach and enormous dunes now stand was completely covered in water as well. 

[Ocean waves]

The dunes and beach are all new, dug up from the bottom of the ocean. Before that, the tide could rise up, all the way to the edge of the dike, and almost overtop it, into the low-lying village below.

Lawrence Lishout: This was all water. What you see over there, the black one, that's the old dike, and about here, there was the water line, so this is all new sand.

Narrator 1: How are the people of the fourth Petten able to avoid that same fate? How do they keep their town from being swallowed by the sea, in a country where half of the land is lower than one meter above sea level?

Narrator 2: That’s where Lawrence and the town council come into play. They negotiated with the government on behalf of their village as they attempted to protect the coastal regions from being "taken by the sea.” In each village, the project is different. But for kilometers along the coast of the Netherlands, local governments have been working with engineers in order to protect the coastline. In Petten, that meant dredging tons of sand from the bottom of the ocean to build these massive dunes and beaches between the village and the water.

[Footsteps through sand]

Lawrence: You see there- the ship? With the orange roof? That's the ship who takes the sand out of the sea and puts it in big pipes to the beach. And over there, that's the dunes.

Narrator 1: Of course, as with any massive project, there was some disagreement. The national government had a strategy. It wanted to build these large dunes and beach, but this would require removing some buildings along the coast. The residents, of course, had their own feelings about the plan.

Narrator 2: Many of the people’s complaints were valid; the dunes were going to disrupt their lifestyle and livelihoods by affecting the town’s tourism, and who was going to pay for it? They wanted to adapt the plan to fit their village’s needs. And with the help of the town council, the national government adapted their plan and financial strategy. Now that the dunes have been built, people are generally happy that they're there, and are less fearful about living on land so close to a stormy and volatile sea.

Lawrence: There is no water coming over the dike anymore. Because I live right behind the dike; and when it was storming, I saw the white coming over the dikes. I stayed inside. 


Narrator 1: The protections that the government has built, such as these large dunes and beaches in Petten, do a good job at protecting the people on land. And the engineers are confident that they’ll provide safety for many years to come.

Narrator 2: So why does this matter? Why is it important that the people of Petten have these dunes and now feel safe? 

[Soft piano music]

Because, we often hear about the failures of people adapting to their climates, of them being outsmarted by nature and its elements. But this adaptation actually worked- or at least, is working right now. The plan that the government made, with heavy input from the residents of Petten, is effective at its job and fits into the community. That’s something we don't hear about every day.

Narrator 1: But the Netherlands is used to building these large-scale projects to protect itself from flooding. The Dutch have been protecting themselves from the sea for hundreds of years. In fact, the first small dikes in the Netherlands were built back in Roman times. Now, there are dikes and other protections along the entire coast of the country. For the most part, the people who live there feel safe.

Narrator 2: But have the Dutch always felt safe?

[Intense music]

Narrator 2: It’s 1953.The Netherlands has just witnessed one of the largest floods in its history. Almost 2,000 people died when a massive storm and high tide hit the southwest coast— the delta region of the Netherlands. 

[Man speaking in Dutch]

Narrator 2: The dikes were not large or strong enough, and the water overtopped them, flooding the delta. Many of those who survived live with haunting memories of the water.

Narrator 1: Yurun Kramer is the press officer of Maeslantkering, a huge flood gate that protects the city of Rotterdam. He describes the impact the flood has had on one such survivor.

Yurun Kramer: One person from Zeeland who witnessed the big flood- she was five years old. This February 1st was 65 years ago that the big flood happened. If she hears on the radio or on the television that a storm is coming in, she knows in her head she is safe, but she still is afraid. That’s normal, you know? It's like a traumatic experience.

Narrator 2: For a country whose national pride lies in water management, the 1953 flood was more than a tragedy; it was a call to action.

Baukje Kothuis: It was a big disaster, but it was also kind of embarrassing for the Dutch engineers and for the Dutch community.

Narrator 1: That’s Baukje Kothuis, also known as Bee. She’s a design anthropologist currently working on flood risk reduction structures and strategies at the Delft University of Technology. She has studied extensively how flood management in the Netherlands has changed over time, and she has a lot to say about how the people and Dutch government reacted to the 1953 flood.

Bee: Well we had to do something to make the country safe again after 1953, but also to restore the trust in Dutch water management.

Narrator 2: As a result of this disaster, the country felt that it had to do something drastic to prevent this from ever happening again. They already had flood barriers, and they had felt safe behind them. But then those protections failed.

Bee: At the time, the way people looked at coping with flood risk was “well, the water, or nature is our enemy,” you know, “and we have to fight this nature. And how do we do this? We can implement big technical solutions.” That’s the way we did it at the time.

Narrator 1: So the Dutch took action. 

[Inspirational piano music]

They built huge structures to protect themselves from the vicious ocean, all across the delta region of the country. In Zeeland, the area where the 1953 flood first occurred, engineers constructed the Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier.

Narrator 2: Tjerk Zitman is a hydraulic engineer at the Delft University of Technology. He took us to see the Eastern Scheldt barrier to see its enormous scale. The storm surge barrier is essentially a bridge with gates underneath that can be lowered when there is danger of flooding. But what makes the structure distinct is that the whole thing is open to the public. 

Narrator 1: Visitors on a daytrip can walk through the enormous structure and read about how it protects the area. There’s even a waterpark for kids that opens during the summer, 

[Splashing water]

an aquarium with some of the local wildlife 

[Animal honking]

and an excursion boat that takes you right up to the storm surge barrier. The barrier is functional, but also accessible to the community that it protects.

Narrator 2: Walking along the bridge past the enormous sluice gates, you can hear thousands of gallons of rushing water flowing underneath. 

[Water flowing] 

In a severe storm, the barriers are lowered, and the waves will crash against these massive concrete gates. 

Narrator 1: The sluice gates, along with the rest of the delta protections, have worked so far. There hasn’t been a flood on such a massive or destructive scale since 1953. The barriers look strong, as if they could withstand any storm. They’ve made the Dutch feel safe again.

Narrator 2: Here’s Bee again, the anthropologist.

Bee: Actually, the Rijkswaterstaat- which is the Dutch Army Corps of Engineers- at the beginning of the ‘90s, they actually said “Well, the Netherlands is finished. We’ve done it.” One of the things that were being said at the time was “Well, God created the world, and the Dutch created the Netherlands.”  It shows very clearly how the Dutch felt, you know, “we did it and we won and it’s all done.”

Narrator 2: But the technological euphoria didn’t last forever. Once they felt safe against the ocean, people in the Netherlands started to think about the environmental implications of these massive barriers. Cutting off water during a storm- water that normally flows through a river or estuary- can have drastic impacts on the ecology of that region. The Dutch had the time and resources, so why not take nature into account? Instead of viewing nature as just a hostile threat, Dutch engineers attempted to work with nature and its forces to keep the water at bay.

[Birds chirping, footsteps on beach]

[Rolling waves]

Narrator 1: One of these natural protections is called the Sand Engine. Imagine- in front of you is a massive expanse of sand and tiny shells. You keep walking toward this isolated and looming structure- it’s so near, but somehow just out of reach. At the edge of the sand, you can see the dark blue expanse that is the ocean. On the other side is a giant hill, stretching kilometers down the coastline, acting as a final defense between the sea and village. And all of this beach is part of the Sand Engine. Tjerk Zitman took us on a walk along this engineering marvel.

Tjerk Zitman: So now you’re actually on the Sand Engine. The Engine is over there, it's the water. It all starts with flat sand, and then due to turbulence in the airflow, these small dunes are formed. That’s natural. Once you have a small bump, it increases the turbulent motion and that stimulates further growth of the dunes.

Narrator 2: Essentially the Sand Engine is a large stretch of over 21 million cubic meters of sand scooped up from the bottom of the ocean.

Tjerk: Before, what we did is, on the entire coast, we did the nourishment- taking the sand, sail to the shore, and then just put the sand everywhere to spread it out. This idea is to have nature do the spreading for you from north to south. 

Narrator 2: The ocean and wind work together like an engine to lengthen this artificial beach. This helps to preserve the dunes, which are one of the most effective barriers against the ocean.

Tjerk: So now we're hoping that with the Sand Engine and the nature- that's why we're proud of it, building with nature- that this hollow shape is reconstructed over the entire stretch of coast, making it stable and then afterwards requiring less maintenance.

[Intrigued music] 

Narrator 1: The Sand Engine looks and functions just like a beach. It’s a popular destination for tourists in the summer. This is another example of how the Dutch create designs that enrich communities in addition to keeping them safe.

Narrator 2: When looking at each of these flood protections- the dunes in Petten, the Eastern Scheldt Storm Surge Barrier, and the Sand Engine- there are distinctive differences in the ways they address similar issues. But the differences are due to the communities that they were built to protect. The adaptations and their functions are designed based on the needs of the community.

Narrator 1: This type of adaptation requires a great deal of communication among government, engineers, and residents. Think back to Petten, where the government came up with a solution and the residents found a way to make that plan work for their community. Another good example of this type of communication occurred in the village of Lent in the western Netherlands, right next to Germany.

Andrea: My name is Andrea Voskens. I have been stakeholder manager in this project.

Narrator 2: The project Andrea is talking about is part of a national initiative called Room for the River. Its purpose is to protect riverside areas throughout the country. In the village of Lent, across the Rhine River from the larger city of Nijmegen, where Andrea works, this meant constructing an entire second channel to divert flood water from the Rhine.

Andrea: We changed from defending ourselves from the water- from keeping the water outside- to an attitude where we want to create more room for the river in case it’s needed.

Narrator 1: Andrea’s part in this enormous project was primarily focused on communication. She was in charge of communicating between the project managers and the residents. If the residents had complaints, Andrea would be there to solve their problems. 

Andrea: I was 24 hours, seven days a week, during the whole period, available for the people. Day and night, holiday, no holiday, they could always call.

Narrator 2: But there are consequences that come with rerouting such an enormous amount of water into a new channel.

Narrator 1: Especially when people are living there, right where you want the water to go.

Andrea: This used to be the village Lent, where people lived generation after generation. It has been a very strong community and then suddenly our national government came with this whole idea. So you can imagine that the municipality did not agree. 

Narrator 2: In Lent, this meant moving 50 families out of their homes to protect the larger city of Nijmegen from flooding in periods of high water. This may seem like a solution that would cause a lot of anger from the village residents. But the government was careful to work with the residents to make sure they understood why it was essential that they move; and that they would be taken care of, with Andrea as a mediator. 

Narrator 1: The residents were allowed to discuss the plan with technical experts. They came up with a modified plan for diverting the floodwater, and some of their ideas were actually incorporated into the final project.

Andrea: They were a serious partner. They had their own experts, and we just talked professional. And if you speak at the same level then you get trust.

Narrator 2: Members of the 50 households who had to relocate were well compensated.

Andrea: They had more negotiations with them, and they got enough money to rebuild their house. I did not hear any complaint about it. 

[Energized guitar music]

Narrator 1: Even though the government was essentially kicking people out of their homes, it was willing to work with the residents to make sure they were part of the discussion and planning phases of the project. And through years of fair negotiation, the project was finished, and now, the city is protected from catastrophe. 

When it floods, water flows right over the abandoned area, instead of into the populated city.

Andrea: I think the people of the city of Nijmegen just are very happy with the area, but they too are more conscious of the behavior of the river. When there is high water, everyone comes to see, suddenly. But they are not worried, really.

Narrator 2: Room for the River in Lent is a good example of how solutions to a problem can be successful when there is enough communication between the people who create the solutions and the people who will be directly affected by them.

[String music with anticipation]

Narrator 1: So what? Why do we care about what happened in the Netherlands, and how the Dutch protect themselves from the sea?

Narrator 2: We care because in the future, we are going to have to learn how to adapt to οur climate too and do it in a way that fits within local communities.

Narrator 1: We’ve seen how the needs of the community can influence the design and function of flood protections. And there are so many other examples of this type of adaptation in the Netherlands such as a parking garage underneath protective dunes and a gorgeous boulevard that also acts as a concrete barrier against the sea.

Narrator 2: While these have been successful adaptations for their environmental issues, we can’t expect this to be the norm. Dredging millions of tons of sand to nourish a beach can work in the Netherlands, where they have the technology, resources, and tourists to appreciate the beach. That doesn’t mean that another coastal region will have the same level of success. Other regions will have different resources, different cultural values and different needs to adapt to.

Narrator 1: Unfortunately, with constantly changing climate, we have to start thinking about these issues now. We will all have to think about how climate change will affect our communities, people’s culture, politics, and society all have to be taken into account. And thaťs hard. But as we saw in the Netherlands, it is possible. 

[Hopeful music]

[Carnival music]

Narrator 2: This piece was produced by Terrascope Radio, a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed in collaboration with MIT’s program in Comparative Media Studies. Terrascope is a freshman learning community focused on solving complex environmental problems. 

Narrator 1: We’d like to thank David McGee…

Narrator 2: …director of the Terrascope program…

Narrator 1: …Elise Chambers…

Narrator 2: …for organizing many of the logistics on our trip to the Netherlands; 

Narrator 1: Sherry Zhou

Narrator 2: our undergrad teaching fellow,

Narrator 1: Tjerk Zitman and Baukje Kothuis, 

Narrator 2: for fearlessly leading us through the Netherlands

Narrator 1 the people we spoke to in the Netherlands; 

Narrator 2: and of course, Ari Epstein, 

Narrator 1: the Terrascope Radio class instructor.

Narrator 2: Sound from TV news about the 1953 flood is from Sound Envision. 

Narrator 1: Courtesy of the Delta Verken Media Gallery. 

Narrator 2: This has been Gabriel Owens-Florez, Caroline Boone, Kelly Chen, Landon Chu, AJ Cox, Charvi Gopal, Jarek Kwiecinski, Anne Tong Lee, Sarah Weidman

Narrator 1: …and Jeremy Dudo. Thank you for listening.

[Music continues with cheerful laughter]