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The story of the Delta Works is grand and marvellous. Fourteen dams protect the vulnerable Dutch delta against storm surges. […] The delta forms the cradle of our culture, the habitat for millions of people […] ‘The Dutch can do it’ is what the Delta Works express […] Thus, the Works have a much bigger meaning than merely protecting against a dangerous sea. They form a crucial link in the international reputation of the Netherlands as a country of water engineers. [1]


The Delta Works are a vast complex of dams and dike improvements in the province of Zeeland and adjacent areas in the south west of the Netherlands, constructed to protect the land in the Scheldt delta from flooding. The government-led project, largely funded with income from the national gas reserves, was initiated after the flood of 1953, which affected a total area of 200000 hectare in the region and lead to the death of over 1800 people and almost 200000 cattle and poultry.

                  Usually, the Delta Works are presented as a project that has been necessitated by the unpredictability of nature, a human-made protection against an inevitable threat. However, looking at the historical development of the region, it becomes clear that this is only a partial truth, at most. Before dikes were built, the Scheldt delta consisted largely of wetlands that would flood regularly and which continuously changed shape. From the middle-ages some of the tidal areas were enclosed by dikes to enable permanent inhabitation. Draining of water from peat grounds due to agriculture and salt and peat extraction in these areas then resulted in the sinking of land that was previously above sea level. In addition, up until the 20th century, ever more land was reclaimed to further expand agricultural production. This, in turn, necessitated the erection and reinforcement of ever more dikes.

                  Thus, the Delta Works should also be seen as a response to problems that resulted from preceding agricultural endeavours. Especially from the 17th century, when traders of the Dutch East Indies Company started investing in large scale land reclaiming projects [2], the water works in Zeeland started to operate like what Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore describe as a ‘frontier’ in their analysis of the history of colonial capitalism: ‘a site where crises encourage new strategies for profit […] the encounter [zone] between humans and all kinds of nature [aimed at] reducing the cost of doing business’ [3]. In this context, the Delta Works may be considered a frontier technology to overcome yet another challenge in a long tradition of securing access to cheap and profitable natural resources, in this case agricultural land.

                  In addition to a frontier technology – a means to an end – the Delta Works have more recently also become an end in itself, as a commodity in a globalized service economy. The Dutch government, universities and businesses promote the water engineering technologies developed during construction and maintenance of the Works as an export product, using the dams as a real-life showroom for international delegations interested in purchasing Dutch engineering skills and knowledge [4].

The coat of arms of the province of Zeeland features a lion emerging from the waves, accompanied by the motto ‘Luctor et Emergo’, I struggle and emerge. The Delta Works are oftentimes celebrated as a high-tech manifestation of this supposedly typical regional attitude – ‘The Dutch can do it’ –  and play a significant role in Dutch cultural awareness and identity. To be truthful, we might need to add a second motto though: ‘Luctor et Extendo.’

[1] Marinke Steenhuis, ed., 2016. De Deltawerken. Rotterdam: Nai10 Uitgevers

[2] Albert Sikkema, 2014. ‘Zeeland is ingepolderd zonder poldermodel.’ Resource, 24 September 2014. [accessed 25 September 2018].

[3] Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore, 2017. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A guide to capitalism, nature, and the future of the planet. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

[4] Bart van den Dikkenberg, 2012. ‘Deltawerken goed voor internationale imago.’ Digibron. [accessed 25 September 2018].

Struggle and Expand



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