Zuiderzee Works

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The Zuiderzee Works (Dutch: Zuiderzeewerken) are a human-made system of dams, land reclamation and water drainage works, and the largest hydraulic engineering project undertaken by the Netherlands during the twentieth century. The project involved the damming of the Zuiderzee, a large, shallow inlet of the North Sea, and the reclamation of land in the newly enclosed water body by means of polders. Its main purposes were to improve flood protection and create additional land for agriculture.

The American Society of Civil Engineers has declared the works to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World together with the Delta Works.

Contents

Birth of the project

The concept of making the Zuiderzee more docile first originated in the seventeenth century, but the ambitious solutions sought then were not possible given the technology of the time.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the emergence of the first feasible plans, with the primary objectives being improved protection from the open sea and valuable new agricultural land. One of the most ardent proponents was Cornelis Lely, an engineer by profession and later government minister (after whom Lelystad is named), whose 1891 plan would form the basis for what were to become the Zuiderzee Works. It consisted of a large dam connecting the northern tip of North Holland with the western coast of Friesland and the creation of initially four polders in the northwest, the northeast, southeast (later split up into two), and southwest of what would be then renamed the IJsselmeer (IJssel-lake), with two major lanes of water spared for shipping and drainage. The initial body of water affected by the project was 3,500 km². Opposition came primarily from fishermen along the Zuiderzee who would lose their livelihood, but also from other people living in coastal areas along the more northerly Wadden Sea who feared higher water levels as a result of the closure, and those who doubted whether it was financially possible in the first place.

However, when Lely became Minister of Transport and Public Works in 1913, the government started working on official plans to enclose the Zuiderzee. In 1916 (13 and 14 January) the dikes at several places along the Zuiderzee broke under the stress of a winter storm, and the land behind them was flooded as had often happened in previous centuries. This particular flooding, however, provided the decisive impetus to implement the existing plans to tame the Zuiderzee. Due to the flooding and a continuously threatening food shortage during World War I, support for the project grew.

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