When you look at the statistics, the windmill is perhaps the single most important invention contributing to the physical existence of the Netherlands. Approximately a third of the landmass that is the Netherlands is below sea level, another third is at sea level and the final third is above sea level, although not by much. The onset of global warming and rising sea levels is likely to place much more of the Netherlands under water, theoretically at least.
Throughout Dutch history flood defences have regularly been washed away by the ocean with disastrous results; storms that build up in the North Sea and strike the northern European coast can be vicious. The consequences of these storms for low lying areas are frequently terrible. The St. Elizabeth’s Flood of 1421 resulted in over seventy villages and hamlets being washed away, with the loss of thousands of lives and the destruction of vast areas of farm land and animals.
The most recent flood disaster took place in 1953 when a tidal surge and storms devastated large areas of the Netherlands; 1,836 people died, 30,000 farm animals were drowned and 10,000 buildings destroyed. The storm also claimed lives in Belgium, England and Scotland. It remains England’s worst modern natural disaster.
When the sea surged like this it frequently left vast inland seas in its wake. This is what happened during 1421 in the area between Dordrecht and Rotterdam, including the area which is now known as Kinderdijk. Things were made worse by the cutting of peat for fuel. This left huge holes in the ground which filled up with water to create lakes. Eventually better sea defences reduced flooding, allowing the Dutch to use the cutting-edge technology of the age, the windmill, to pump water and drain the inland seas.
The Netherlands is, in a very real sense, a creation of the windmill. The area around Kinderdijk is an excellent example of this, but the UNESCO listed area known as the Beemster just north of Amsterdam is a classic rural landscape shaped by the windmill. In 1608 it took twenty-six windmills a year to drain this large lake; unfortunately, the dyke burst not long after and flooded the area again. It was eventually drained for good in 1612.
There are numerous other examples of this type of land reclamation across the Netherlands: in the 1630s the ingenious draining of the Schermer involved 51 windmills and took four years to complete. It is impossible to imagine these accomplishments being achieved with only horse and people power. The windmill made the seemingly impossible possible, and the result of these 400-year old feats of engineering are still imprinted upon the landscape of the Netherlands.
They may also point to the future. As climate change and rising seas threaten to swamp vast areas of the globe, the Dutch experience may be critical in helping other countries to live with water.
I’m not sure the historic struggle of the Dutch to overcome nature is the main reason most people visit Kinderdijk – and it does receive a lot of foreign and domestic tourists. This is a lovely area to just walk and absorb traditional, man-made, windmill-powered Dutch countryside, and if you walk far enough you may just be able to enjoy it in solitude.