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No. 2850:
Dutch Flood Control

Today, living on the delta. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Netherlands lies on a delta formed by three major rivers as they empty into the North Sea. Most of the country is less than three feet above sea level. Fully a fifth is below sea level.

The Netherlands has long been protected by dikes, more commonly known as levees in the U.S. But in 1953 a severe winter storm overran the country's protective system of barriers, killing almost two-thousand people. Government response was swift. Within a month the Delta Committee was formed to develop a cohesive, long term plan for water management. Among those the committee called upon was Dutch mathematician David van Dantzig.

Van Dantzig was an accomplished mathematician, but his contribution to Dutch flood control was as simple as it was useful: when allocating money to projects, account for both cost of damage and probability of damage. Regions with a high likelihood of flooding that would be costly to fix would receive the highest funding priority. Less costly regions would receive lower priority, even if the probability of flooding was high. The idea's closely related to the notion of cost/benefit analysis, and it gave planners a rational means by which to allocate funds. The approach was part of the Delta Law passed by Dutch Parliament in the late 1950s.

What's striking about the parliament's action is that it doesn't provide uniform protection for all citizens. The Netherlands has fifty-three dike rings — large regions protected by a single dike. Your ring may be protected from a 2000 year flood and mine from a 10,000 year flood. Is it fair that I receive better protection than you? The Dutch concluded it was.

With the Delta Law in place, the Delta Works soon followed — a massive, decades-long project to build and update the country's dams, dikes, locks, and sluices. Today, the Delta Works represents a coordinated engineering marvel. The American Society of Civil Engineers, coming from an admittedly civil engineering perspective, went so far as to deem the Delta Works one of seven modern wonders of the world.

Delta Works
Delta Works

And the Dutch aren't done. Inspired by estimates of a regional sea level rise of two to four feet by the end of the twenty-first century, a second Delta Committee was formed. Its far-reaching plan called for spending one-and-a-half to two billion dollars per year for the next ninety years improving the country's water management system. Engineers and mathematicians were again instrumental in developing the plan, taking advantage of advances in modeling and computers. But the underlying principle of cost/benefit analysis — and of a shared commitment to the national welfare — remain at the heart of the plan.

open Maeslant Barrier

I suspect I won't be around when the Dutch are finished. Then again, I imagine they'll never finish. The world is ever-changing, and engineers — like all of us — need to continually adapt.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music) 

Notes and references:

Delta Works. From the Wikipedia website: Accessed December 18, 2012.

C. Eijgenraam et. al. 'Flood Protection by Optimal Dike Heightening.' Working paper from the Tilburg University website: Accessed December 18, 2012.

D. Wolman. 'Before the Levees Break: A Plan to Save the Netherlands.' Wired Magazine, December 12, 2008. See also: Accessed December 18, 2012. 

Working Together With Water: Findings of the Delta Commission 2008. 

The picture of the open Maeslant Barrier is from Wikimedia Commons. All other pictures are from the Deltawerken Online website. 

This episode was first aired on December 20, 2012.