Dear fellow travellers
It is often billed as one of Europe's great highways. Not on account of mountainous terrain, nor because it presents any special challenges to drivers. The road over the Afsluitdijk is dead straight. But it is a 32-km-long tribute to Dutch ingenuity. Completed in 1932, this mighty dyke and causeway connects the province of Friesland with the northernmost part of the Holland region. The road, which from the outset was an integral part of the structure, runs the length of the dyke; it is part of a major European highway.
We travelled this route last week on a long journey from Berlin to the island of Barra in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. Most other vehicles on the Afsluitdijk road sped along close to the speed limit. Instead of dashing over the dyke, we stopped off here and there to learn more about its history and its future - for the Afsluitdijk is back in the news as rising sea levels due to global warming are presenting new challenges for Dutch engineers.
Cast back 100 years and communities along the North Sea coast of the Netherlands were not in good shape. War and food shortages were taking their toll, and there was a great fear of flooding. The inundations of early 1916 had caused terrible loss of life, and towns and villages throughout Zeeland, Holland and Friesland were worried about what the next big storm might bring. Dutch engineer Cornelis Lely seized the moment to promote his grand plan of building a huge dyke which would effectively turn the Zuiderzee into a lake.
For 25 years, Lely had been pressing for an ambitious scheme which would afford protection against the tides and also create new land for farming. By 1917, Lely was well into his third term as the government minister responsible for water management. With his powerful advocacy and influence, the Zuiderzee project was embraced by the government and most of the Dutch people. Not all, for some communities around the shores of the Zuiderzee protested mightily about the impact of the scheme on the fishing industry - and that despite the fact that it was precisely these communities which had endured great suffering in the 1916 storm.
The great dyke which spans the waters is an extraordinary achievement. Two artificial islands, neither more than a kilometre in diameter, were created to help in the construction of the dyke. They are still there, eerie and otherworldly places. There is a row of houses, about a dozen dwellings in all, on Kornwerderzand, and it happens that one is for sale just now. Any takers? But, before putting in an offer, do go and take a peek at Kornwerderzand, for this is surely one of the oddest places to make a home. "What sort of people live here?" we asked the only other human we met during the hour we spent on the island. "Strange ones," he said. "You have to be strange to enjoy Kornwerderzand."
The management of water resources and tidal defences is an integral part of the Dutch experience - much more a part of people's lives than tulips and windmills. And the Afsluitdijk is the biggest and boldest of Dutch dykes. Though now, it seems, not big enough, not bold enough for a world where powerful storms are more common and deadly tidal surges more of a threat. "We need to strengthen the dyke," says the man on Kornwerderzand. "Rising sea levels and extreme weather are a real threat to this region," he explains.
New cladding on the seaward edge of the dyke will give an extra line of defence, and - in the event of a really huge storm - the waters of the North Sea will be able to flow over the dyke into the freshwater lake (called the IJsselmeer) on the landward side. A complex new system of sluices will allow greater mixing of waters between the sea and the IJsselmeer, thus allowing saltwater fish and marine animals to enter the IJsselmeer. The salinity gradients where the two bodies of water meet will allow the generation of electricity through reverse electrodialysis. It will be just the kind of pioneering project in which the Dutch have always excelled.
There is a fine statue of Cornelis Lely by the side of the highway which traverses the dyke. He will most surely watch with interest as his pet project, one which was conceived in the 19th century and came to fruition in the 20th century, is re-engineered to meet the new challenges of the 21st century.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)