Before the flood of 1953

The Netherlands above and below sea level
Above / Below the Sea
Years before the disaster of 1953, experts had already warned that something had to be done about the condition of the dikes. Nevertheless, the flood occurred. It is a mystery why nobody had listened to the advice given by the experts. The condition of the dikes will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Condition of the dikes

In 1929, the Department of Waterways and Public Works (Rijkswaterstaat) started the “Study service of rivers, sea arms and coasts” (Studiedienst van de Benedenrivieren, Zeearmen en Kusten). In its first years, this service mostly studied the encouragement of shipping traffic. Later, the service got involved with studying the conditions and water turning capacities of the dikes.
In 1934, the service studied the consequences of impoldering the ‘Biesbosch’. Research showed that the consequences for Dordrecht would be disastrous - almost all the dikes appeared to be too low. A report from 1928 had already stated that the dikes in West-Brabant did not meet the safety requirements, but nobody felt like spending a vast amount of money on raising the dikes. Both surveys showed that something definitely had to be done about the condition of the dikes along the rivers.
Mr. Muralt invented a cheap way to solve the problem. He suggested raising the dikes by building concrete walls of a few centimetres high on top of the dikes. In particular, in Schouwen and Zuid-Beveland, 120 kilometres of dikes were raised between 1906 and 1935, by building the so-called ‘Muralt walls’.

High water levels in 1943

In 1943, the water level was extremely high. The water ran over the dikes in many places. Again, further research was conducted to check the heights and widths of the dikes, and just like before, the outcome was not good at all. The dikes were proven seriously defective and according to the Department of Waterways and Public Works, severe problems following a high storm tide were highly likely.

WW II

The outbreak of the Second World War meant the plans to improve the condition of the dikes around Dordrecht were not carried out. The Storm tide commission, founded in 1939, discontinued its research during the Second World War. The Department of Waterways and Public Works therefore did not really receive the commission’s plans with open arms. The department preferred to focus its attention on the reclamation of the Zuyderzee, thus reclaiming more land. More land meant more space for agriculture and habitation, and this would yield money.
During the Second World War, Zeeland suffered a tremendous amount of damage. Dikes were bombed and land was flooded in an attempt to chase away the Germans. Repairs to the landscape started in March 1945 and in February 1946 all the gaps were filled in. These unforeseen repairs also helped distract the attention away from raising the dikes. 

Brackish problem

The Netherlands becoming brackish
Brackish Water
Meanwhile, the study service continued to emphasize the need for raising the dikes, but money was still a large problem. The agricultural sector in the Delta area had to deal with a ‘brackish problem’, which was costing farmers a lot of money, so the Department of Waterways and Public Works decided to focus their attention on this. Because of the deepened waterways near the coast, it was easier for the sea to come inland. As a result, the groundwater would get salty (brackish), which hampered arable farming. Many agricultural crops were unable to survive the brackish water and died. Various plans were drawn up as a consequent of the brackish problem, each with the same goal, which was to stop groundwater from becoming contaminated, and protect a large area of land from the storm tides. However, it was important for the ‘Nieuwe Waterweg’ (“New Waterway”) to stay open, as it was vital for shipping traffic. Within these plans, dikes did not have the highest priority. It was far more important to close the Zuid-Sloe and Brielse Maas.

It is understandable that people were not too interested in spending money on improving the dikes. There had not been a flood in years and the money could be better spent keeping the agricultural sector going. The agricultural land that had been contaminated by salt received further attention, because crop failures were continuing to cost farmers a lot of money. The damages suffered during the Second World War still had to be repaired, and food shortages during the war further helped distract the attention from the condition of the dikes. To prevent food shortages, more farming land was required. Using improved techniques, it was possible to impolder and dike lower lands as well. Even more attention was taken away from the current unsafe dikes.

After the war, the reconstruction of the Netherlands began. Everything seemed to be running perfectly well again. Nevertheless, in 1953, it turns out that the sea was still lurking...