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Flood Protection in the Netherlands
April 7 , 2006

A new book from a Calvin College professor of engineering was planned long before Hurricane Katrina. But its author admits the topic became a lot more timely after the destruction last year in New Orleans.

Robert Hoeksema's book is titled "Designed for Dry Feet: Flood Protection and Land Reclamation in the Netherlands." It is being published by ASCE Press, the publication arm of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and is due out in May 2006.

Hoeksema will give a free talk open to the public on the book on April 19 at 4 pm at Calvin in Science Building 110.

He notes that few countries exist in which human activities have exerted a greater influence in shaping the landscape than the Netherlands.

"The purpose of this book," he says, "is simply to tell a story: how this small country in Western Europe used and developed technologies over many centuries to create and maintain usable dry land in a very inhospitable environment."

He laughs about a Dutch saying which goes "God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland."

Yet he says he had never thought much about the Dutch achievements prior to teaching an interim course in the Netherlands in January 1995 (interim is a three-week term at Calvin each January during which students take just one class).

"Even after earning graduate degrees in civil engineering hydraulics, hydrology, and water resources and teaching courses on the subject," he says, "I never thought much about the water-related engineering achievements of my Dutch ancestors."

During that January 1995 interim class he spent four weeks exploring the rich history and amazing accomplishments in the areas of flood protection and land reclamation in the Netherlands. He was so inspired that in 1996 he took a year-long sabbatical leave in the Netherlands. And he has since returned four times to teach Calvin interim classes.

In the spring of 1998 he was invited to make a presentation on the subject of land reclamation and flood protection in the Netherlands to the Western Michigan Branch of ASCE.

"After making that presentation," he says, "I realized that many people knew that large parts of the Netherlands lie below sea level and are in danger of flooding. Many also knew that dikes and windmills were important tools in the struggle against water and that the Dutch reclaimed land from the sea. But few knew any of the details. How did the Dutch get to where all of this was necessary? What were the major accomplishments and the technologies used? What were some of the major projects and what level of engineering effort was needed?"

The intent of his new book, he says, is to simply fill in the details of this amazing story.

Hoeksema notes that the danger of living below sea level was made very real with the recent flooding in New Orleans.

In the case of the Netherlands, he says, 65 percent of the country is situated below the level of high tide.

"A significant portion of the 16 million people who live in the Netherlands would be potential victims from a storm surge disaster like that generated by Hurricane Katrina," he says. "Maintaining an acceptable level of safety is a critical, ongoing task."

The book tells the entire story of the history of Dutch flood protection and land reclamation from dwelling mounds constructed as early as 500 B.C. to large storm surge barriers completed at the end of the twentieth century, including the social-political-economic context for these developments.

In addition to providing historic and technical background, the book includes excursion guide details for readers interested in seeing many of the places Hoeksema describes.