Floods as War Weapons

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During the Eighty Years’ War, as the Spanish army fought to recapture territory in what is now northern Belgium and southwestern Netherlands in the late sixteenth century, the Dutch rebels led by William of Orange decided to use the low-lying, flood-prone landscape to their advantage. In an attempt to liberate Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp from Spanish dominance and defend their territory, the rebels destroyed seawalls at strategic places from 1584 to 1586 to cause deliberate, large-scale floods.

The plan got completely out of hand, It came at the expense of the countryside of northern Flanders, now Zeeland Flanders, some two thirds of which was flooded.

Floods can result in loss of life and damage homes and businesses, and when the water remains inland for a long time, it can change the landscape through erosion and deposition, forming new tidal channels and creeks. The area flooded during the Eighty Years’ War became part of a strategic line of defence and remained inundated for more than 100 years in some places, with profound consequences for the landscape. After the waters receded, a thick layer of clay covered all remnants of buildings and roads in the area. As sea water was used, soil salinity increased, affecting agricultural yields.

Strategic flooding is a highly risky tactic. It can only be successful if there’s a well-thought-out backup plan and a plan for fast repairs. However, that was not the case here. Mostly below sea level, and dominated by three river estuaries populated with islands and a system of dykes and dams that protect the fertile land from the sea, this region is particularly susceptible to floods.

As reported in the new Hydrology and Earth System Sciences article, the main floods in the area in the past 500 years could be grouped into those caused by storm surges (21 events) and those happening during wartimes (11 events). The former had natural causes and the latter were created by humans, but human action played a major role in both.

The most damaging flood occurred in the winter of 1953, when strong winds blew for two days causing a long-lasting storm surge, which resulted in extremely high water levels. Over 1800 people died, 100 000 were evacuated and damages reached the equivalent of 700 million euros. While the cause of this flood was natural, human factors contributed to the extent of the damage. Officials were slow at responding to the event, failing to take mitigation measures such as raising the dykes fast enough. Weak building construction and inadequate rescue procedures contributed to the material damage and human toll.

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