Zuiderzee Works - Birth of The Project

Birth of The Project

The concept of making the Zuiderzee docile originated in the seventeenth century, but the ambitious solutions suggested were impractical given the technology then available.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the first feasible plans, with the primary objectives being protection from the open sea and creating new agricultural land. Cornelis Lely (after whom Lelystad is named) was an ardent supporter, an engineer and later government minister, whose 1891 plan formed the basis for what were to become the Zuiderzee Works. It consisted of a large dam connecting the northern tip of North Holland with the western coast of Friesland and the creation of initially four polders in the northwest, the northeast, southeast (later split in two), and southwest of what would be renamed the IJsselmeer (IJssel-lake), with two major lanes of water spared for shipping and drainage. The initial body of water affected by the project was 3,500 kmĀ². Opposition came from fishermen along the Zuiderzee who would lose their livelihood, and from others in coastal areas along the more northerly Wadden Sea who feared higher water levels as a result of the closure, and others who doubted whether it was financially practical.

However, when Lely became Minister of Transport and Public Works in 1913, the government started working on official plans to enclose the Zuiderzee. On January 13 and 14, 1916 the dikes at several places along the Zuiderzee broke under the stress of a winter storm, and the land behind them flooded, as had often happened in previous centuries. This flooding, however, provided the decisive impetus to implement the existing plans to tame the Zuiderzee. Due to the flooding and a continuously threatening food shortage during World War I, support for the project grew.

On June 14, 1918 the Zuiderzee Act was passed and the mammoth undertaking began. The goals of the Act were threefold:

  • Protecting central Netherlands from the effects of the North Sea
  • Increasing the Dutch food supply with new agricultural land
  • Improving water management by creating a lake from the former uncontrolled salt water inlet

The Dienst der Zuiderzeewerken (Zuiderzee Works Department), the government body responsible for overseeing the construction and initial management, was set up in May 1919. Now work could commence in earnest. It was decided not to build the main dam first, but rather to test the waters with a smaller dam, the Amsteldiepdijk across the Amsteldiep separating the island of Wieringen from the North Holland mainland. Despite its length of just 2.5 km, the dike took four years to build, from 1920 to 1924. It was a valuable learning experience which was put to use in the later projects.

As with dike building, making polders was tried with the experimental polder at Andijk. Dike building, reclamation and agricultural methods were tested there on a small scale.

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