Dutch hold Mother Nature to a draw

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Until five days ago, the land that rolls down from the dykes outside the eastern Dutch town of Nijmegen to the Waal river was pasture for cows and sheep and a quiet place for lovers to stroll and watch the mallard ducks that winter here. Now the area is a vast lake of milky brown water with only the ducks left. But even the ducks had a hard time yesterday. A bitter wind blew out of heavy grey skies from the south-west, blowing them off balance and whipping up whitecaps on the river, giving it the appearance of a huge cappuccino.

Standing on a dyke east of Nijmegen with the Waal just a few feet below, one could hear a worrying sucking sound each time the wind-beaten waters flapped against the clay barriers.

It was as if Mother Nature decided to test the defences and the determination of the Dutch just a little more. So far, the contest is a draw. The dykes, which are being checked every hour, are largely holding. But each hour brings new dangers, and naturemight yet prevail.

The emergency committee in the central town of Tiel announced that 90 per cent of the inhabitants of polders who have been living under the threat of dyke bursts since Tuesday had been evacuated yesterday, while the 20,000 residents of four more towns behind the Ochten dyke were advised yesterday to leave their homes by today.

With the Waal already lapping at the tops of the dykes, the icy wind is pushing the water even higher. Some of the earthen walls have started to buckle under the strain of wind and water. A part of a dyke near a place known as "Ten Commandments" crumbled, forming a small hole.

Taking on the role of the Netherlands' most famous little boy, with his finger in the dyke, were 11 policemen dressed in blue boiler suits and a few locals. Instead of using their fingers, the men formed a chain from the road that runs along the top of the dyke down the short distance to the water's edge, passed sandbags from the back of a lorry and dropped them into the hole.

"It's only a very little hole without any importance, but it's better to fill it," Ben Wasser said. He lives on the dyke at Ten Commandments and most of his neighbours joined the 250,000 people and one million cattle that have been evacuated from the areas in danger of flooding.

Mr Wasser, remained behind to help to care for the dyke and was philosophical about any risks he was taking. "I'm not worried because I live on the dyke and I've seen it all before," he said with a smile.

Behind him were the polders, the low-lying land reclaimed over the centuries. Some of the polders are as much as six metres below the dykes; almost three-quarters of the Netherlands is below sea level.

It is easy to understand why the Dutch call the isthmus between the Maas and the Waal branches of the Rhine "the Bathtub''. Only the dykes stand between the polders and the swollen rivers.

How long will they hold? Two in the south of the country have burst and water is starting to seep through dykes around Nijmegen in Ochten. If the dykes burst, the polders will fill with water as fast as a sink with both taps on full.

"The situation is getting more critical all the time," Nijmegen's police spokesman, Pieter Bekker, said. "It's the pressure of the water as much as the level of the river that brings the danger.''

Floods disaster, page 7