The Netherlands Envisions Man-Made Islands in Sea


When this small and overcrowded country has gotten too cramped in the past, the Dutch have had a fairly simple solution: Build a bit more.

Now, after centuries of turning vast stretches of shallow inland water into productive farmland, the Netherlands is looking to a new frontier--the very sea that batters it.

Enterprising engineers see a giant building site in waiting lying in the North Sea, whose choppy, slate-gray waters pound away at the ribbon of sand that stretches along the western Dutch border.

“The North Sea offers us chances to reinforce Dutch economic activity,” says Sjef Jacobs, who heads a government panel investigating the possibilities. “Plans could bolster existing activities or offer new ones. They could strengthen the Dutch economy.”


The Dutch have long built breakwaters and ports on the fringes of the sea, but their visions today are far grander--man-made islands for an airport, for homes, for businesses, for power-generating stations.

Man-made islands in the North Sea increasingly are becoming a viable economic option for businesses that need a lot of space to expand, said Erik van Oosten of Royal Boskalis Westminster, the world’s largest dredging company.

A square yard of land reclaimed from the North Sea costs about 260 guilders, or $130. The same size patch of mainland can cost more than triple that.

This promise of cheap land has sent planners scurrying to their drawing boards.


While no one expects to see houses sprout offshore soon, there are tentative plans to stretch the popular coastal suburb of Scheveningen into the sea. Other proposals include using man-made islands as dumps for industrial waste and sites for energy-generating wind turbines.

Such talk unnerves environmentalists. They are mobilizing to protect the North Sea’s unspoiled horizon and ensure no man-made islands are used as dumping grounds for industry or other projects unwanted on the mainland.

Yet even environmentalists can see merit to building in the sea. Man-made islands could protect the fragile coast against erosion, they concede, and could also provide valuable breeding waters for North Sea marine life.

Looking underwater for building opportunities is nothing new for the Dutch. Since the 14th century, the low-lying country has reclaimed thousands of acres from inland seas and lakes in its hunt for new land. The capital, Amsterdam, recently approved a plan to build 18,000 houses on six man-made islands in an inland sea.


Although only the size of Maryland, the Netherlands has a population approaching 16 million, and the majority wants to live near Amsterdam, where most of the jobs are.

One of the prime movers in the push to extend the nation into the North Sea is Schiphol Airport. Its planners say an offshore extension would allow the airport, one of Europe’s busiest, to grow without worsening noise and air pollution around Amsterdam.

Schiphol wants to build new runways on a man-made island six miles at sea while maintaining check-in facilities at the current airport just outside the capital. Trains would whisk passengers to and from the island via an undersea tunnel.

“This is the biggest step forward we can make with an eye to future growth,” said a Schiphol spokeswoman, Marianne de Bie.


Experts say that it would take six years and $15 billion to build such a satellite airport and rail tunnel.

“Technically, it is not a problem,” said Warry Lubberhuizen, chairman of the Dutch Marine Construction Federation.

Building offshore islands would be relatively easy because a shallow continental shelf extends out 7 1/2 miles along the Dutch coast.

Using floating dredgers, engineers can suck up huge quantities of sand from one area of the seabed and dump it elsewhere. Once the land mass has risen above sea level, it can be surrounded by solid protective dikes.


Given the economic and possible environmental benefits, “it’s a win-win situation,” Lubberhuizen said.

The project on the fastest track is a 2,470-acre seaward extension to the Port of Rotterdam. The government, eager to ensure that the port has ample space to retain its ranking as the world’s busiest, is expected to approve the plan in 1999.

Dutch land reclamation know-how is itself a valuable export, with Dutch and Belgian companies dominating the world dredging market. Royal Boskalis Westminster, the global dredging giant, can’t help but hope for a piece of the action unfolding at home.

“We have a lot of experience all over the world,” said Boskalis’ Van Oosten. “Hopefully we will get a chance to add a bit to the Netherlands.”