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Bordering on the North Sea, the Netherlands has 280 miles (451 kilometers) of coastline. The country is also located at the mouths of the Rhine, Maase, and Scheld Rivers. The temperate and marine climates result in cool summers and mild winters. The Netherlands is chiefly comprised of coastal lowlands and numerous polders-land that has been reclaimed from the sea-with some hilly sections in the southeast.
The process of land reclamation began in the 17th century when windmills were used to drain lakes in the north. In the southwest, land was built up over time as tides deposited sand and silt on the shore, allowing the Dutch to reclaim the land with dikes. Around Groningen and Friesland, the government built dams out into the sea to promote the accumulation of sand and silt. In 1930, the government drained the first polder at Wieringermeer. Today, some 5,000 polders cover the Netherlands, and dikes and pumps maintain the water level at around three feet (0.91 meters) below ground level for purposes of cultivation.
As a result of its unique geography, the Netherlands is extremely vulnerable to flooding. This vulnerability was tragically illustrated in what became known as the “Battle of the Floods,” which began on January 31, 1953, when a violent storm on the North Sea ravaged the country. The land where hundreds of people lived below sea level had been protected for centuries by 700 miles (1,127 kilometers) of dunes, dikes, and pumping systems, but none of these could withstand winds of 100 miles (161 kilometers) per hour and waves several feet high. In the middle of the night, as the raging tides reached shore, church bells rang and sirens wailed. Within a few hours, the country had been cut in two.
Some 100,000 people were successfully evacuated from low-lying areas, but 1,800 people died. The port city of Rotterdam was under water, and many small towns and villages became islands. Others were totally washed away. Ultimately 332,500 acres of cultivated land was under water, and tens of thousands of livestock drowned. Some 143,500 houses were flooded, and another 20,000 were damaged. Eighty breaks were identified in the dikes, some over 600 feet (183 meters) wide. Others simply crumbled away. To prevent a repeat occurrence, the government launched the Delta Project, constructing a series of dams, sluices, bridges, and canals and erecting a movable water surge near Rotterdam. Unfortunately, fisheries were negatively affected by these protective measures. With global warming expected to cause sea level rise by as much as a meter over the next century, further sea wall construction is ongoing. This climatological reality has also caused enhanced Dutch participation in climate change control treaties and alternative energy exploration.
Today the Netherlands is ranked as the 21st richest nation in the world, with a per capita income of $30,500. The United Nations Development Programme Human Development Reports rank the Netherlands 12th in overall quality-of-life issues. Chiefly located in the delta of the Rhine, 26.71 percent of the land area is arable, and the Netherlands is a major exporter of agricultural products. Other natural resources include natural gas, petroleum, peat, limestone, salt, and sand and gravel.
Some 16,407,491 Dutch live in an area of only 16,033 square miles (41,526 square kilometers). Nearly 66 percent of those live in urban areas, and there are 384 cars for every 1,000 people. The Netherlands produces 0.6 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. Other environmental problems derive from heavy industrialization, with food processing, chemicals, petroleum refining, and electrical machinery enterprises dominating the industrial sector. Consequently, water sources are polluted with heavy metals, organic compounds, and various nutrients that include nitrates and phosphates. A 2006 study by Yale University ranked the Netherlands 27th of 132 countries in environmental performance, below the comparable income and geographic groups. The lowest ratings were received in the categories of biodiversity and air quality.
Environmentalism was first placed on the Dutch agenda in 1970 in response to public concern. In 1970, the Staten-Generaal passed the Surface Water Act and followed it up two years later with the Air Pollution Act. Both acts were designed to check pollution at the local level and force industries to be environmentally responsible. Despite these efforts, pollution remained widespread throughout the 1980s. Tests revealed that groundwater was polluted with nitrate from agricultural runoff, and soil samples contained high levels of chemicals. The entire ecosystem of the forests was threatened by acid rain.
In 1989 the Dutch conducted the Concern for Tomorrow study and identified problems at all levels, setting goals for combating each problem. Under the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, the government established the National Environmental Policy, the first comprehensive national plan geared toward a sustainable economy. The long-term plan, covering 1990 to 2010, established 10 targets that ranged from agriculture and industry to research institutions and consumers, charging each group with cutting pollution and/or developing new technologies for protecting the environment.
Under the 1990 Nature Policy Plan, the Dutch set up the National Ecological Network to promote biodiversity and protected 14.2 percent of the land area. The protected land includes 19 national parks, including the Hoge Veluwe, the Veluwezoom, and the island of Schiermonnikoog. Of 55 mammal species endemic to the Netherlands, 10 are endangered; however, only four of 192 endemic bird species are threatened.
The Netherlands supports the global environment by participating in the following international agreements: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants, Air Pollution-Sulfur 85, Air Pollution-Sulfur 94, Air Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic-Marine Living Resources, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Kyoto Protocol, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, Wetlands, and Whaling.
- Battle of the Floods (Netherlands Booksellers, 1953);
- Central Intelligence Agency, “Netherlands,” The World Factbook, www.cia.gov;
- Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, Europe: A Continental Overview of Environmental Issues (ABCCLIO, 2003);
- George Thomas Kurian, The Benelux Countries (Facts on File, 1989);
- United Nations Development Programme, “Human Development Reports: Netherlands,” hdr.undp.org;
- United Nations Environment Programme, Europe Regional Report: Chemicals (Global Environment Facility, 2002);
- David Wallace, Environmental Policy and Industrial Innovation: Strategies in Europe, the United States, and Japan (Earthscan, 1995).