The very first plans to close the Zuiderzee date back to the 17th century. However, in those times knowledge and technology were not sufficiently developed. In 1891 the young engineer Lely developed his first feasible plans for the Afsluitdijk. In 1913, when he was Minster of Public Works, he ensured that the project was placed on the cabinet’s agenda. But the cabinet decided to postpone these plans indefinitely.

Gaining momentum

Times change though. During World War I many people in the Netherlands suffered from starvation, resulting in a greater demand for self-sufficiency in terms of food. More fertile agricultural land was required. Lely’s land reclamation plans could be used for this. Things went very wrong in 1916. Flooding occurred in the Zuiderzee region. People were killed and injured, thousands lost their homes and the economic damage was massive. Something had to be done. From that moment on, the damming of the Zuiderzee gained momentum. Lely submitted his plans for the Afsluitdijk as early as 1917, but Parliament did not pass the Zuiderzee Act until 1918.

Dr. Ir. Cornelis Lely

Afsluitdijk_Lely Many know him from the statue at the Monument on the Afsluitdijk: Cornelis Lely. Cornelis Lely (Amsterdam, 23 September 1854 – The Hague, 22 January 1929) was a Dutch engineer, hydraulic engineer, minister, governor and politician. He is the father of the Zuiderzee project. In 1891 the young engineer designed the first feasible plans for the Afsluitdijk. In 1913, when he was Minster of Public Works, he ensured that the project was placed on the cabinet’s agenda. Lely died in 1929 at the age of 74. He never saw the completion of the Afsluitdijk.

The construction of the Afsluitdijk begins

In 1920 the first work on the Afsluitdijk commenced. Due to a brief interruption because of poorer economic conditions, the work was accelerated in 1925. Thousands of people worked very hard on the construction of the dam. The stoneworkers came from all over the country, because the job was well-paid. It was a great achievement: a dam that was over 30 kilometres long in the middle of the sea. In 1932 the last hole in the Afsluitdijk was finally closed up. That was a beautiful moment, but not for everyone.

Whole villages depended on fishing in the Zuiderzee. The Afsluitdijk ensured that the water rapidly changed from salt to fresh. Fishing was no longer profitable. Fishermen received compensation from the government, but the downside was that many lost their jobs and had to look for another trade.

Caught up by the times

By now the Afsluitdijk has been doing its job for more than 80 years. During this time it has clearly proved its water-retaining and economic function. The dam has made the Netherlands safer and has made it possible for us to reclaim more land. However, a lot has also happened and changed over these years. The locks are outdated and need to be reinforced. Climate change is making it more difficult to keep out the rising sea water and to discharge surplus water from the IJsselmeer. This is a safety hazard. The dam, which in the past was highly talked-about, has been caught up by the times. With respect for its iconic value and its history, the Afsluitdijk will be given a face-lift.