Based on historical hindsight, this paper shows that sea-level rise has played a fundamental role in the development of the low-lying environment of the Netherlands. It was beneficial in morphological terms during the mid-Holocene, but from Roman times, it has been a threat to the coastal zone evolution and human habitation. Collective human response started to play a role in coastal evolution as early as the ninth century, while its influence started to become a major factor during the nineteenth and twentieth century.
Throughout its history, Dutch society has always been receptive to new technologies, approaches, and policies in its dealings with the many water-related challenges. The success of concerted human response explains why the water boards were successful as the first democratic institutions in the Netherlands. Development of technology and increasing financial means (the Dutch Golden Age) gave rise to increasingly viable flood abatement measures and reclamation projects, which took place on increasingly larger scales. This culminated in large-scale works such as the closure of the Zuiderzee and the Delta Project in the twentieth century. During this project, a turning point in thinking emerged; while flood protection remained a top priority, human interventions were considered in a broader, more holistic context with natural values being weighed against socioeconomic interests.
In the face of the challenges of the twenty-first century, policy and management approaches as well as science and technology approaches need to be adapted further in accordance to the principles of working with nature in a trans-disciplinary way. The success of this adaptation will to a large extent determine the viability of the Dutch society as a whole.