Dam fine & Floating Farm

The engineering marvels that keep the country dry(ish)


On January 31st 1953, the North Sea Storm struck the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, claiming the lives of over 300 people around the UK, 25 people in West Flanders, and 230 people who found themselves at sea along the Northern European coast. But with approximately one third of the Netherlands lying below sea-level, the results there were particularly devastating, with swathes of Zeeland, a south-western region, suffering extreme damage, and a recorded 1,835 people tragically losing their lives.

This horrendous and terrifying tragedy inspired the construction of the Delta Works; a series of dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and storm surge barriers that were constructed in the provinces of South Holland and Zeeland between 1954 and 1997. The aim of this project was to shorten the Dutch coastline and reduce reliance on dykes by building bridges and barriers between parallel peninsulas and nearby islands to cut the sea off from large man-made bays in which water levels can be managed, and the flow of water diverted away from areas of land.

It’s no surprise to me, driving over the Oosterscheldekering (Eastern Scheldt storm surge barrier), that the Delta Works are now considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. This nine kilometre long storm surge barrier was the most expensive part of the Delta works, and took the longest to construct. The man-made stretch started out as a dam, but was later transformed into a storm surge barrier after fishermen protested that the dam was negatively impacting marine life and their ability to fish. Now the final three kilometres of the barrier remain open in regular weather conditions, allowing sea water to flow in and out of the Eastern Scheldt, and are closed in adverse conditions, completely separating surging sea from both the water and land in and around the former estuary. 

Delta Works (PHOTO: Visit Netherlands)

The car and everyone in it feels especially small in comparison to our surroundings. The sea to our left is closer than the water on our right, the discrepancy plucking at a primal sense of alarm, a confusion that reaches beyond cellular understanding for some genetic knowledge that might lend some context to the fact that this thin strip of bridge and barrier exists, and that we are travelling over it. Enormous steel turbines that match the colour of the clouds above tower over the scene and spin steadily on to complete my feeling that we have arrived at a frontier, at the edge of the world as we know it.

But rather than thinking about the Netherlands as fighting a war we will soon have to join, I think about them taking brave steps into a future in which we will also have to live. To think about the struggle between humankind and the sea as purely violent, strikes me as contradictory to the balance that the Netherlands must strike and aspire to in everything it now does. The turbines harness wind power so as not to exacerbate the problems that result in rising sea levels, the barriers preserve those aspects of the sea that nourish us, and protect against its destructive attributes; it is a struggle, in which violence and loss of life have definitely featured, but driving over the Oosterscheldekering, I see the balance of nature and culture in action. It’s possible, and it’s happening. 

Floating Farm (photo at the top)

We’re still very much in bustling Rotterdam city when Google Maps tells us we’ve arrived at the farm, but the confusion is just beginning. The world’s first floating farm is two storeys high, with the ‘ground floor’ (if that is such a thing, when there is no ground) housing all the kit and equipment needed to make milk, cheese and yoghurt from the milk produced by the 32 Meuse-Rhine-Issel cows that live on the upper floor. 

The structure is largely self-sustaining, with grooves in the roof collecting rainwater that sustains the thirsty cows, and innovative design immediately collecting and processing slurry, both to clean and reuse the water therein, and make fertiliser for other farming projects. We pass piles of artisan loaves and green beans, excess stock donated by local bakeries, restaurants and supermarkets for consumption by the cows; local parks and golf courses also drop off grass cuttings, and brewers’ grains also regularly feature in the cows’ diet, making this small, floating corner of Rotterdam a wondrously circular food economy. 

The appeal and necessity of farming on water is obvious in the Netherlands, with rising sea levels being a pressing issue, and public memory still easily recalling the challenges posed by flooded farmland. But in addition to this, the Floating Farm relocates agriculture from countryside to a place much closer to where it is consumed, both reducing the carbon footprint produced by transporting food, and drawing it closer to the communities that might come to rely on it during natural disasters. With the Floating Farm project having proved such a success since its launch in 2018, plans are now being made to trial the vertical farming of fruit and vegetables.

PHOTO: Robyn Gilmour

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