Living with water in the Netherlands and at sea

KINDERDIJK, Netherlands—In the days that I’m here, I find myself using the #livingwithwater hashtag while reporting because, well, almost half of the country is at or below sea level.

I’m here in these low-lying lands to report on climate change adaptation, with the hope of uncovering at least a few Dutch secrets about balancing life with so much water. Coming from Boston where climate change projection maps paint a rather unsettling underwater future of our downtown, there is certain urgency in learning from the Dutch.

But here’s the thing about the Netherlands — a tiny country that’s almost twice the size of New Jersey. More than half of its land has been perpetually flooding for generations. The Dutch are essentially anchored sailors, trying to keep their feet dry by pumping out the ever-encroaching seas. Knowledge about the water has been passed down through generations and has evolved into ingenious adaptation strategies: everything from massive barriers that protect against storm surge to thousands of dikes, canals and an intricate network of rain gardens and restored flood plains that keep their soggy ground habitable.

Their sailor likeness resonates with me because I too have lived on the water, albeit on a large ship for weeks on the open ocean. I’ve battled frigid North Atlantic seas and the notorious Drake Passage. I’ve sailed throughout the Caribbean and through many low-lying atolls of the Pacific, interacting with many water-faring communities along the way. And so I was surprised to find myself viewing the interior of the Netherlands through a similar lens; here are also people of the water.

Upon arriving at the iconic windmills of Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage site, I saw that sea-faring resemblance cross from figurative to literal. It helped that windmills have real sails made of sailcloth, just like a sailboat. The dark sails can even be ‘reefed,’ shortened to slow down the windmill’s speed. They perform a critical function for water management. Stretched across long wooden lattice blades, which spin with the wind, the sails turn an axle that causes a scoop wheel to pump water up into canals, effectively draining the surrounding low-lying land needed for agriculture. Without the mills, the land would completely flood and return to peat swamp.

A Kinderdijk miller reefs the dark, acacia-died sailcloth, on his windmill.
A Kinderdijk miller reefs the dark, acacia-died sailcloth, which is fastened to the wooden lattice windmill blade—a structure that strikes a strong likeness to sailboat rigging. (Skye Moret)

Another sea-faring parallel: the wind millers must teach each other how to keep a sharp weather eye for shifts in wind. Should a gale arise with sails up and no brake set, the windmill could spin too fast and self-destruct, damaging a miller’s home. A change in wind direction could cause the windmill to spin backwards, making it impossible to brake or causing the brakes to catch fire—another potentially lethal threat. All of this vigilance just to keep their land and feet dry.

“Millers and sailors, they have a lot to talk about – it’s very similar,” says Peter Paul Klapwijk, a communications manager at World Heritage Kinderdijk who invited us into his family’s windmill home on the water. “The biggest difference is that the wind miller stays in one place and the sailor gets to see the world.”

As famous as the Netherlands is for engineering its landscape to keep up with rising sea levels, it is Dutch citizens who have been forced to embrace a water-faring life. It’s part of their cultural identity—for more than a century, they have evolved with a landscape where rising seas and flooding are part of day-to-day life.

We all can learn from their commitment to adapt to, and not deny, inevitable climate change.

Skye Moret is a GroundTruth climate change fellow reporting on climate resilience in coastal cities.