How People in the Netherlands Live With Water

by Sophie van der Meulen
December 9, 2021 | 11 min read

How People in the Netherlands Live With Water

If you have ever been to the Netherlands before, you might have noticed it: water, everywhere. From the canals in Amsterdam to endless rainfall, water is omnipresent. The Netherlands is a unique country in many ways, most of all geographically. Did you know that only 50% of the country lies more than 1 meter above sea level? After all, the Netherlands literally means “lower lands”.

The Netherlands has a long coast line, bordering on the North Sea. The presence of the sea and the warm Mexican Gulf Stream leads to temperate, but wet weather. The Netherlands sees an average annual rain fall of 700 mm! But the water doesn’t only come from above. Three big European rivers run through and branch off in the Netherlands.

So, with water coming from all directions, how is it that the Dutch manage to keep their feet dry? The answer lies in innovation, invention and a pragmatic approach to water management. Here are all the ways that the Dutch live with water and how to see them when visiting the Netherlands:

The Netherlands has a natural coastal barrier

The Dutch coast stretches over an impressive 230 km distance from Germany in the north to Belgium in the south. Such a long sea border might sound like a disaster for a low-lying country, but the Netherlands actually has a great natural barrier against the water. Roughly 75% of that coastline is lined with sand dunes, some several kilometers wide. These dunes not only make for a beautiful landscape, but also the perfect defense against the tides. Some dune areas in the Netherlands are protected as national parks and play and important role in Dutch wildlife and biodiversity. Most of the Dutch coastline also offers great sand beaches. Dutch beaches are the perfect place for a relaxing summer day in the sun or a brisk windy walk in the spring and fall. Unfortunately, rising sea levels are eroding these natural barriers. Approximately 1 million m³ sand per year gets washed into the deep sea. So, be sure to visit these beaches, such as the one in Scheveningen, before they wash away.

The Dutch built dikes

But the Dutch quickly realized they needed more than just sand dunes to shield them from the sea. As they will tell you, the best way to ward yourself against water is a good dike. They love them so much they even used them to turn a whole sea inlet into a lake. The Afsluitdijk is 32 km long and connects the provinces of North Holland and Friesland. This long dike was built between 1927 and 1933 as part of a project to turn the Zuiderzee (South Sea) into the Ijsselmeer (Ijssel Lake). By building the Afsluitdijk they managed to turn a sea inlet into a huge sweet water lake. You can see this engineering marvel for yourself and even drive the whole length of it and enjoy the view! If you want to see what life in the Netherlands was like before this whole undertaking, visit the Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen. The open-air museum takes you back in time to Holland in the late 1800s.

So why built all these dikes? Throughout the centuries, the Netherlands witnessed some disastrous floods. The last big flood took place in 1953. On the night of the 31st of January, a combination of spring tide and a massive storm caused a storm tide that rose to 5.6 meters above usual sea levels. This enormous flood broke through the sea defenses and killed over 1,800 people. You can learn more about this flood in the Watersnoodmuseum in Zeeland.  

This tragedy urged the Netherlands to renew their approach to water management and renew the coastal defense system. The imposing Delta Works are the result. This huge flood protection system is 8 km long and incorporates storm surge barriers, dikes, dams and sluice gates. The system of 62 sliding gates can close the entire Eastern Scheldt in 75 minutes. All meant to prevent another massive flood. The result is pretty spectacular and a must-see when visiting the southern Dutch coast.

The Dutch reclaimed land

There is a saying: “God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”. After the Afsluitdijk created the Ijsselmeer, the Dutch started on an even more ambitious project: creating new land. From what was once sea, they formed the province of Flevoland. In 1986 this youngest province was literally born from the sea. It is the largest land reclamation project in the world, which took more than a decade to complete. Being a former sea, the workers uncovered over 450 shipwrecks during the construction of the province. Their locations are marked all over the polder by blue and white poles with ships on them.

Flevoland is the largest but certainly not the only polder in the Netherlands. There are 4000 pieces of reclaimed land like it around the country. The definition of a polder is a low-lying piece of land surrounded by dikes. They can be either reclaimed land, flood plains or marshes. Dutch engineers came up with a way of draining wetlands to create much-needed farmland. By 1961 half of the Netherlands was made up of reclaimed land. The oldest polders are the Beemster and the Schermen, both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beautiful pieces of land. Here you can see for yourself what happens when new land is created from sea.

The Dutch built wind- and watermills

To create a polder, you need to build dikes and pump out the water. For this purpose, windmills were most commonly used. Windmills have become an iconic image of the Netherlands. The most famous example is Kinderdijk, close to Rotterdam. Here you can bike along the dike to see a number of polder mills. Of the 1170 historic windmills in the Netherlands some are still used for water management. Other windmills were and are used to grind grains into flour. Aside from windmills, water driven mills were used for industry as well. With plenty of rivers and streams to power them, watermills can be used to generate electricity, operate machinery and manage water levels. There are still 50 functioning watermills in the Netherlands.

A more modern way of maintaining water levels is through a pumping station. Electric and steam powered pumping stations are still being used to transfer excess water from rivers into the sea. You can visit and such an example of Dutch engineering at the Woudagemaal.

The Dutch ruled the oceans

But all that water is not just a nuisance. The Dutch learned to use the presence of water and the sea to their advantage. Boats immediately became an important form of transportation in the Netherland. The Dutch got so good at building fast ships and seafaring that they managed to become the center of world trade in the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age. Through the Dutch East India Company, they surpassed the Portuguese and Spanish as the dominant economic trade power. The Company gained a monopoly on the Asian trade, established the first stock market and first central bank. However, the most profitable form of trade was the import of grain and wood from Russia and the Baltics. The wealth and progress during this time had a huge effect on the arts and culture in the Netherlands. The Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam is the perfect place to learn more about the Dutch Golden Age and sea trade. Or check out a traditional shipbuilding wharf and Dutch East India Company ship replica at Batavialand in Flevoland.

The Netherlands has the biggest seaport in Europe

And not just the sea is great for trading, the extensive river network in the Netherlands is the perfect way to transport goods to other countries. This started centuries ago using boom operated flat boats, sailboats and later motorized vehicles. Over 500 kilometers of the inland system are main transport ways carrying goods from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to Germany and Belgium. The Dutch rivers account for two thirds of all EU inland water freight shipping.

In fact, the Netherlands has remained one of the biggest trading powers in the world. The port of Rotterdam is the biggest port in Europe and the biggest sea port in the world outside of Asia. In 2018 almost 500 million tons of cargo moved through the port of Rotterdam. The massive harbor covers an area of 105 square kilometers. It consists of five different port areas and three distribution parks. The Rotterdam port is one of two in the world that can accommodate the largest bulk cargo ships. A large part of the handling of cargo in the harbor is done by machines and robots, with people being flown around in helicopters. The port of Rotterdam is a must visit in the Netherlands. You can take a boat tour of the Port of Rotterdam with Spido from the beautiful historic Delfshaven all the way to the new reclaimed land areas of the Maasvlakte.

The Dutch created more waterways

As if all those rivers weren’t enough, the Dutch decided to build even more waterways. To facilitate easy transportation of goods to and from Amsterdam, the Amsterdam-Rhine canal was constructed between 1931 and 1952. This 72 km long canal connects the port of Amsterdam with Germany. It is the busiest canal in the world and transports 100,000 ships a year. It also functions as a run off system for excess water from the Rhine.

The Dutch started building canals long before this one though. In fact, canals are one of the things Amsterdam is famous for. Several other historic Dutch cities also have canals running through them, such as Utrecht, Leiden, Delft, Groningen and the Hague. Most of these canals were built in the 17th century to transport merchants’ goods as well as drainage and sewage systems. There is nothing more Dutch than strolling or biking along the canals. Although swimming in the canals is generally forbidden, there are plenty of boat tours you can do to see these beautiful cities from a new perspective.

Some refer to Amsterdam as the “Venice of the north”, but only one place is the deserved recipient of that nickname. The small town of Giethoorn has become a popular tourist destination because of its unique infrastructure. There are no roads or cars in this village, only waterways and footpaths. The only way to get around is by boat or to cross the bridges from house to house. Because of the intense tourism, loud motorized boats are no longer allowed. Instead, you can rent a so called “whisper boat” to explore this lovely town and the surrounding marshlands.

The Dutch enjoy water

Even with all their struggles and practical uses, the Dutch know the true value of water: fun. Water is a big part of leisure and recreation in the Netherlands. Dutch children learn to swim from an early age and as soon as the weather allows, everyone flocks to the lakes and beaches. The combination of abundant wind and water makes the Netherlands lakes and sea perfectly suited to sailing. Don’t be surprised to see people kayaking and rowing on the Dutch canals and river either.

The Dutch prove that it doesn’t need to be warm to enjoy the water, as winter frost means ice skating! The Dutch started ice skating as far back as the Middle Ages and it is still a popular sport. In fact, it’s one of the sports the Netherlands excels at. Most people in the Netherlands learn how to ice skate as kids on frozen rivers and canals. Some cities will turn town squares into ice rinks in winter. After all, there few things as romantic as ice skating around the city by canal. The Dutch take ice skating very seriously and each winter they hope for enough frost for an epic competition: the Elfstedentocht. This is a tour on the frozen rivers between eleven towns in Friesland covering 155 km. Unfortunately, due to global warming, there hasn’t been enough ice for an Elfstedentocht since 1997.

If you don’t have time to travel around the country to visit all of these places, you can still see them. This is Holland is a 5D experience that virtually flies you over some of the most incredible sight in the country. You even feel the wind in your hair and smell the ocean. A view of the Netherlands as you have never experienced it before. As you can tell, the Netherlands has a unique relationship with water. Both friend and foe, the Dutch have developed ways to not just live with water but thrive because of it. Water is a big part of Dutch life, Dutch history and Dutch culture. No trip to the Netherlands is complete without seeing some of the impressive Dutch water-related inventions and beautiful water infused landscapes.

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Hi! My name is Sophie and for the past 2 years I have been traveling the world as a digital nomad. I work remotely as a writer and translator while I backpack around the world and have epic adventures. On my blog, I give tips about things to do, things to eat and things to know about the places I visit as well as general solo travel advice.

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