Marker Wadden: the making of a bird paradise

Ten years ago, if you had stood in the same spot as volunteer, Hans van Amstel, was standing now; welcoming his latest group of bird watchers to the Marker Wadden nature reserve, you’d have been submerged four metres underwater within a vast, turbid lake – muddied by swirling silt. “The boat tours are my favourite part of volunteering here. This is a place where nature rules supreme – there’s over 170 species of birds, as well as an abundance of fish and plants which many of our feathered inhabitants depend on!”
Bird detail
Around Hans, in every direction, rolling green carpets of marshland, pockets of thriving reed banks, and stunning sandy beaches unfurl. Together they form the archipelago that is Marker Wadden, found on the Markermeer in the Netherlands – one of the largest freshwater lakes in Europe, teeming with vibrant wildlife.  

Setting sail, Hans, and his band of bird watchers scanned the water’s edge for an ever-elusive crowd favourite – the Red-Crested Pochard. Looking into the distance, a glint of light drew his attention to the nearby Marker Wadden 1 boat as the sun reflected off a small plaque positioned towards its bow. It belonged to Natuurmonumenten, and the plague said that the purchase of the boat had been made possible thanks to a gift from a company: Royal HaskoningDHV. 

Pulling his attention back to the search, Hans wondered what his life would’ve been like if Natuurmonumenten hadn’t come to the Markermeer. And would Marker Wadden still be the paradise it is today?  

Before the beauty 

At the start of the last decade, there wasn’t a single species of bird that called this part of the Markermeer home – and the Red-Crested Pochard had virtually disappeared from the Netherlands. The Marker Wadden islands you see today didn’t exist and the area wasn’t green and dazzling, but brown and dull.  

One of the main problems was that a thick layer of silt covered the Markermeer floor, and as a result, there was a tremendous amount of mud floating within the water. This had been getting worse over the years and the local ecosystem was under pressure – fish populations were low in numbers and variety.   

This hadn’t gone unnoticed. In 2011, Roel Posthoorn was a Project Director at Natuurmonumenten – an organisation working to preserve ecosystems and create a more natural Netherlands – and had been involved in the Markermeer for some time. He felt the area – and the many discussions going on around the subject – weren’t heading in the right direction:
Bird detail
Roel Posthoorn

I saw the area had so much potential and could attract lots of wonderful wildlife, as well as act as a hub for the local community.

Roel PosthoornProject Director at Natuurmonumenten

Roel says, looking back: “But there was a complete loss of inspiration needed to find a solution to help the Markermeer.” Having worked on island projects across Europe including in the Netherlands, UK, Ireland, and France – Roel thought his love for islands could hold the key: “I thought, what if we could not only improve the water quality of the Markermeer – reducing the silt and mud – but create new habitats for wildlife at the same time?” 

Roel put forward a bold vison to create beds of sand and marshes using the lifeless mud. The bottom of the lake could then breathe again and come to life, while the sand could act as a building block for nutrient-rich wetlands. “I was desperate to make it happen.” He says, looking back. But there was a big stumbling block – there was no funding for the project, with estimated costs nearing €50,000,000.  

Roel did have one idea, but it was a little out-of-the-box. He’d heard about something called the Dream Fund of the Dutch National Postcode Lottery –which gives organisations the funds to deliver iconic projects. Roel applied online for €15,000,000 that day.  

Dreaming a way towards reality  

In February 2012, sitting at the Dream Fund’s grand event in Amsterdam, Roel found out Marker Wadden had been successfully granted €15,000,000. To this day it’s a bit of a blur and doesn’t quite seem real, but he still remembers the moment the announcement was made, the sudden feeling of total excitement and elation, and the media frenzy that followed: “There was a huge smile on my face, and let’s just say it didn’t disappear for many, many days.”  

Later that week, Roel made a phone call to Paul Eijssen at Royal HaskoningDHV. The two had been speaking for some time before the event, discussing what parts of the project would need to be planned for in the (rather rare) event of the funding coming their way.  

When it did, the Dream Fund provided a financial foundation and plenty of media coverage, helping the project attract enough investment to reach its €50,000,000 target. The ‘Marker Wadden’ project was given the green light and so was collaboration between Natuurmonumenten and Royal HaskoningDHV that would flourish in the years to come…

Overcoming challenges on the horizon 

Roel first approached Royal HaskoningDHV because of their extensive technical expertise overseeing engineering projects of this scale that build with nature in innovative ways – like Sandscaping at Bacton in the UK – as well as their project management, procedure knowledge, stakeholder engagement and tender process knowledge. The company was assigned to play an advisory role over Marker Wadden, meaning Paul and his team would support with procedures such as the Environmental Impact Assessments, Zoning Plan and permit applications, as well as help prepare tenders and assign the contractor who would realise the project.  

“One of the first jobs, before we even knew Roel had been given funding from the Dream Fund, was drafting a 30-page detailed proposal plan, outlining what needed to be planned for and completed in order for the project to be a success.” Paul says: “The document covered important aspects that would transform the idea into reality, including the necessary procedures that had to be completed and the preparation of the tender. Members of the team each wrote a chapter of the plan based on their own expertise and formulated the steps in a clear and convincing way.”  

Taking a look over the document for the first time, Roel was thrilled: “It read so well and explained things in a simple, understandable way, while still providing a thorough and detailed analysis. It became our guideline that told us exactly what we needed to do before we developed the area.” But it wasn’t all plain sailing and there were several challenges the joint team had to overcome. A vital one, as Paul remembers, was building with silt, mud and sand – the team had to think long and hard about how to actually build islands using the material and ensure they formed into solid, sturdy ground:

Paul Eijssen

It was hard to work out how to piece together such a fine material into something bigger that created land – it's such a new and innovative way of working. It's still something university students are researching today.

Paul EijssenStrategic Consultant Royal HaskoningDHV

Teamwork makes the dream work 

The process of making Marker Wadden a reality was a labour of love, as much as it was a feat of engineering. 

The years between 2011 and 2016 passed quickly, the joint team held regular meetings in the Royal HaskoningDHV headquarters in Amersfoort; where all members of the project shared ideas and insight to work through challenges. From how best to use funding, to how they could capture the silt to build these man-made islands. 

Before long, word got out about Marker Wadden and Paul was inundated with requests from passionate people at Royal HaskoningDHV who wanted to contribute towards the project: “They were so keen to build with nature and saw how this project could make a positive difference.” In total, over 150 members of Royal HaskoningDHV would end up playing a part in the project.  
Excursion on Marker Wadden

A vision that inspires 

It was in 2016 that the team first saw the islands rise from the water – by then, Royal HaskoningDHV had played a role in selecting the contractor and had helped supervise the work. Soon after the appearance of the first island, the water along the shoreline was already clearer and, as the team had hoped, the first few signs of life were starting to appear.  

As the islands continued to rise from the lake, populating the once murky waters, it became clear that the Marker Wadden team would need people to help maintain and look after the landscape. Hans was one of the first of 200 dedicated individuals who volunteered at Marker Wadden. He and his team are responsible for running boat tours for visitors, maintaining the region, and ensuring the area is properly supervised.  

“I spent more than 30 years working for Rijkswaterstaat – and when I retired, I promised my wife that I’d spend the first few months at home taking it easy.” Hans says: “But when I heard about Marker Wadden, I knew I had to get involved. I was first approached for a quick coffee meeting to learn more, and after just 30 minutes, I decided to volunteer. It’s tough being away but my wife understands my decision. After being in nature, and around Marker Wadden, I feel refreshed and always come home smiling – and that’s the most important thing.” 

Building a paradise  

And so, in March 2022 – ten years since the start of the project – as the first flowers started to bloom and silhouettes of birds dotted the sky, Paul and Roel took a walk together in Marker Wadden to reflect on an extraordinary project.  

As the pair walked along a platform close to the bank, they saw a boat tour about to set off with Hans at the helm. And that wasn’t all – far and wide, people were sailing, hiking, and enjoying being out in nature. 

“What started as a dream that kept me awake at night is finally a reality.” Roel says: “As humans, we can really mess up the world, so it feels good to do something positive for a change.”  

By shifting perspectives, we enhance society together.

New dunes Marker wadden

Project facts

  • Client
    The Dutch Society for Nature Conservation (Natuurmonumenten)
  • Location
    Markermeer, the Netherlands
  • Date
  • Challenge
    To help restore and develop the ecosystem of the biggest nature development project in the Netherlands
  • Solution
    Join up with the Dutch Society for Nature Conservation (Natuurmonumenten)
Paul  Eijssen - Strategic consultant Impact Assessment & Leading professional Digital reporting

Paul Eijssen

Strategic consultant Impact Assessment & Leading professional Digital reporting

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