The Netherlands & Water

The Netherlands’s relationship with water is unlike that of any other country in the world. Here are some interesting facts and figures about how water has shaped the Dutch landscape, culture and lifestyle.

One third of the Dutch territory, roughly speaking, is actually below sea level, while another one third is very close to the official zero-measuring (NAP) level.

N.A.P. (Normal Amsterdam Level) is the level between average high tide and average low tide, and the standard to which all lows and highs in the country are measured. NAP is even referred to as the "European Ordnance Level."

Along waterways throughout the Netherlands are some 50.000 indicators of NAP.

Most windmills were simply wind-driven pumps. Nowadays, they been replaced by electric pumping stations but still almost 1.000 (out of the estimated 10.000 in the 17th century) remain.

windmill passage netherlands

Dikes were made of soil and later from rock (especially basalt). Today, even though modern materials (concrete, asphalt etc.) are used, parts of dikes are still made with the original ones.

If a dike breaks, only a restricted area - a so-called "dike ring" - would be flooded. But if for some reason, all dikes would break simultaneously, roughly one half of the Netherlands would be flooded.

To find out if your home is below sea level, and by how much, you can visit the Actueel Hoogtebestand Nederland (AHN) and enter your postcode.

Downtown Amsterdam lies some 2 metres (6,5 ft) above sea level.

Schiphol is the world’s lowest-lying airport. In fact, the NS station at Schiphol lies 10 metres (32 feet) below sea level.

The main purpose of ditches is drainage. Of course, they are meant for dividing fields and properties, and keeping cattle in place too.

Ditches are connected to a wider water mass and eventually, the water will be discharged into a river or canal and hence to the sea. At least half of the Netherlands could not even exist without those ditches.

Statistically there are 125 days per year without a drop of rain anywhere in the country.

Per person, the Dutch use 120 litres (26 gallons) of clean water everyday for various reasons.

Dutch drinking water goes through some 20 steps of purification before reaching your tap.

In the past, the miller and his family could communicate news (birth, death, marriage etc.) without leaving the windmill, by positioning the wings in a certain way.

windmills netherlands water

Usually wooden shoes were made of willow trees. They provide insulation and are impenetrable, not only to water but also to sharp farmers’ tools. Dutch farmers ofter wore a kind of inside-shoe in them; pluck or straw for the poor, but soft and flexible goat leather "clog socks" for the well-to-do.

Most types of bridges can be found in Holland, the main exception being rope-bridges.

"The (balancing) bridge was open" is considered the traditional Dutch excuse for being late.

"Canal" or gracht is related to the English word "grave." Canals in the Netherlands were made for defence and transportation.

The Dutch tend to call any elevation in their flat environment a berg or at least a bergje - a small mountain or rather a mound, also when it is just one meter (3,3 ft) high.

No matter the economic climate, cutting the budget for maintenance of dikes in never ever debated.

The mix of sand and clay was known to be perfect for agriculture when tulips were introduced to the Dutch Republic in the 17th century.

On cycling paths in sandy areas all over the country, seashells are used for "pavement." Preventing both mud and dust, the crushed shells guarantee good passage in wet as well as in very dry weather.

The Dutch use the word "sea" (zee), and not "ocean." They feel that the ocean is far away, behind the the British Isles.

The dunes are Holland’s natural protection against the sea. That is why admission is restricted in most places.

Sea-water temperatures may reach 20C (68F) by late August but will be down again to just 4C (39F) by February.

On the beach, semi-nudity is widely accepted. Of course, there are also official nude beaches with signs saying "Naaktstrand."

Living safely below sea level costs everyone residing in the Netherlands some 330 dollars per year.

Too little water can also be a problem; with many old dikes built of clay and peat drought can cause a dike to dry out and start cracking.

In Dutch, bricks are called baksteen (bake-stone), and that is what they are: baked from river clay.

dutch river land

dutch dike

dutch water netherlands

The Elfstedentocht, the "Eleven City Tour," is a one-day skating event that starts and end in the provincial capital of Leeuwarden. An almost 200km (124mi) race that started in 1909 and has been followed by 14 other ones so far.

ice skate netherlands

Waterschap, the regional water control board, is the oldest-existing democratic "body" in the Netherlands, dating back to the 13th century. There are 27 waterschappen today.

Holland’s soft subsoil has a great advantage; All cables, tubes and pipes can be neatly hidden underground. Have you seen any telephone poles around?

There are some 10.000 houseboats in the Netherlands and over 2.400 in Amsterdam alone, even when only a third of these are on the picturesque city centre canals. Note that one of them has been sitting in precisely the same location in Amsterdam since 1888!

Amsterdam authorities want to gradually reduce the number of houseboats. As a result, when houseboat dwellers move out or die, permits are often not renewed, and the number of houseboats will eventually decrease.

The first areas with "biological" agriculture in the Netherlands were set up in the 1970s.

Amsterdam’s drinking water system was the first of the country, dating back to 1853.. 70% of the water comes from the Rhine river and the remaining 30% from a polder (a reclaimed catchment area) in Loosdrecht lake area.

polder system netherlands

Parts of the Dutch landscape became low due to human intervention. When settlement started long ago, people stuck to higher spots such as river levees, the slopes of the dunes and an occasional elevation. Between these was the wet wasteland, full of growth and wood, or holt - therefore "Holt-land," or Holland. By conquering this, i.e. Pumping it dry, digging away the peat and then using it for agriculture, the land got lower and lower.

Amsterdam grew around a 13th century dam in the Amstel river, its most famous and striking feature is its canals (grachten), which gave the city the nickname "Venice of the North" and, in 2010, also Unesco World Heritage status.

The Central Station in Amsterdam stands in front of what used to be the Amstel river’s natural outlet into the IJ.

"Flushing" the canals is done at night, twice a week under normal conditions and four times in period of hot weather. Flushing is done by opening Amsterdam’s system of sluices in such way that fresh Amstel water pushes the "older" water out into the IJ.

Some buildings can be seen tilting. If the tilt is forward, there is nothing to worry about; it was done on purpose when the house was built, to make rainwater drip from the wooden windowsills in order to preserve them and perhaps also to keep furniture being hoisted up the facade from hitting the building. If the tilt is sideways, however, it indicates a serious condition.

The "palace" on Dam Square (built around 1650) sits on no less than 13.659 poles driven into the soft river ground.

Just like Amsterdam, many towns have a Dam square, situated at some distance inland from the tidal waters leading to the sea, since the river mouth could function as a protected harbour.

Even though tulips originate in the dry and cold mountains of Turkey, they grow best on a special kind of soil behind the dunes that is a mix of sea sands and more fertile clay.

Keukenhof means "kitchen garden," originally being a castle garden where vegetables and herbs were grown for the kitchen. It was turned into a more formal garden in the 1850s, and by 1949 into the now-famous annual flower show.

The world’s earliest public transport could be found in the 17th century Dutch Republic, where passenger boats would leave for certain destinations at fixed hours, and people would know the arrival time at their destination.

All the above (info & photos) and many more interesting facts can be found at "The Dutch and their Delta: Living below sea level" written by Jacob Vossestein and published by XPat Media.

dutch delta

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The Netherlands



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