The Netherlands, life with water
Water doesn’t just permeate through the lives of the Dutch people; it runs through the land itself: a fifth of the total surface area of the country consists of water. The Dutch relationship with water is one of balance, a matter of life and death. We might cherish it, but we have had to fight water for almost every bit of land we now inhabit. As early as in the 14th century we were reclaiming land to live on. Today we’re continuing that work in an effort to not only let nature prosper, but to also build modern cities and town. Nearly a third of our country lies below sea level, and without its fascinating landscape of ditches, canals, lakes, rivers, windmills, polders and dikes, half would be flooded.
If you’re lucky enough to visit the Netherlands, you’ll immediately see evidence of this special relationship. As well as the canals that wind alongside our streets and the houseboats that queue up along our waterways, there are monumental windmills, water-rich nature reserves, historic pumping stations, beautiful beaches, magnificent museums and UNESCO World Heritage Sites to discover. So, take a journey with us and let our special relationship with water inspire you.
Did you know?
There are more than 10,000 houseboats in the Netherlands!
Reed farming in the Dutch wetlands
“Water has always been part of my life,” Johan explains as he sips coffee in the educational area of the family’s business. “This wetland area has a rich history for me and my ancestors.” The wetland he refers to is the National Park Weerribben-Wieden – the largest fen in northwest Europe – where beautiful lakes, ponds and canals are interspersed with peatlands, reed beds and forests. “I feel like I'm on holiday every day,” Johan adds, “it's so beautiful here. We work on a beautiful piece of land. And there are so many special plants and animals.”
Water also makes every day different for the De Dood family. “Water never stands still and doesn’t move in the same way,” Yfke explains. “It can be quiet or devastating. When the Zuiderzee was still here there were several dike breaches, which has shaped the area we live in today. This makes working in the area even more beautiful and means no two days are ever the same.”
Our work is not a job, but a way of life.
Rich flora & fauna
National Park Weerribben-Wieden is the biggest marshland area in Northwest Europe - a stunning region with plenty of ponds and lakes, heath forests, vast reed fields, and more.
Boating through the Weerribben-Wieden
Discover the park from the water, for instance by booking a boat tour or going on an adventurous canoe trip.
A centuries-old craft
A reed cutter hard at work in National Park Weerribben-Wieden.
Meet the Big 5
Meet the residents of the national park: the roe deer, grass snake, fox, white-tailed eagle, and last but not least, the otter.
As well as reed farming, the family work as nature managers and help educate visitors about the area and their craftsmanship. “Many people have no idea what we are doing and why,” Johan says. “I hope that by passing on our knowledge we can help give people a better understanding of why nature and water are so important. That might mean they take better care of the world.”
Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, Johan knows every inch of his land intimately. He can point out where the otters live and where the harriers nest. “I belong here, we belong here. I feel that very strongly,” he says wistfully, as he looks over the land that has helped define his family for generations.
Their young son Joey is also at home in the reeds, and Johan is hopeful he might carry on the family tradition. “If Joey wants to continue the company as the eighth generation of reed farmers, then he will get the same opportunity that my parents gave to me,” he says. “It would be nice if we could pass this tradition on, but that will be Joey’s choice in the end.”
Water management and the ever-changing Dutch landscape
Known locally as the Watersnoodramp, the North Sea flood of 1953 inspired the Dutch people’s resolve to never let a tragedy like it ever happen again. Although the country had faced many floods throughout history, none had the same impact as the one in 1953. It paved the way for the creation of the Delta Works, a network of dams, dikes, sluices and storm barriers. Consisting of 13 sections, together it forms the world’s largest flood protection system and is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
The engineering feat of the Oosterscheldekering storm surge barrier in the Netherlands is spectacular. Building the gigantic concrete complex took 17 years. It’s an awe-inspiring experience to ascend the huge structure and marvel at the huge amounts of water rushing below your feet. Another poignant point of interest can be found in Zierikzee, where a bronze statue of a mother protecting her child honors the victims of the 1953 floods. In Ouwerkerk in Zeeland, some 60km south of Rotterdam, the Watersnoodmuseum is the perfect place to explore water has had on the Netherlands. Formed by the incoming and outgoing tides during the months following the 1953 flood, the creek that neighbors the museum on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland has become home to an impressive array of wildlife and fauna.
As well as the titanic structures of the Delta Works, another key part of the Dutch water management system is the Afsluitdijk. A colossal 32-kilometer-long dike that has been protecting the Netherlands from the sea since 1932, it stands as a national symbol of the Dutch people’s relationship with water. Inscribed on a relief at the monument to this feat of engineering are the words “Een volk dat leeft bouwt aan zijn toekomst,” or, in English, “A people that live, build their own future”. It’s a fitting tribute to the Dutch people’s perseverance in taming the water they live with.
Of course, developing the world’s most advanced flood defenses takes practice, and so after the end of WWII the Waterloopkundig Laboratorium in Flevoland, a hydrological laboratory, was established. Here water could be guided into and out of large-scale trial models without pumps, concrete basins were used to test wave motion, and scale models of locks and harbors were made, all helping Dutch engineers understand how they could develop projects like the Delta Works.
Canoeing through the Biesbosch
The Biesbosch may well be one of the Netherlands' best known parks and is the perfect starting point for an adventurous canoe trip.
Aerial photo of Dordrecht
Dordrecht's residents, known as 'Dordtenaren' in Dutch, are often seen as islanders. With reason, since you can only leave the city by ferry, tunnel or bridge.
How the flow of water shapes the life of the Dutch people
Until the eighth century, the Dutch lowlands were uninhabitable marshlands. In the early days, windmills were key to extracting water to create new land. In fact, Dutch communities even used the position of the sails to announce deaths or weddings. Throughout history, the Netherlands’ intricate network of canals, dikes, dunes, dams and water-pumping windmills has influenced the landscape. Here among the verdant grasslands, dikes and expansive nature reserves, tulips bloom, farming thrives and wildlife prospers. And, of course, this serene, flat landscape is perfect for a bike ride.
Using water to create world-class Dutch art
You are always exploring; the landscape is constantly changing.
His experiences growing up surrounded by water and experimenting with it now channels into the work he does. “It’s exploration, and the realization that the landscape is not something finished, it’s something you’re a part of,” Daan says. “Then, I built my tree huts, now I'm doing a small tree project, or something like Waterlicht, where we created a virtual flood using LEDs and lenses to raise awareness about rising water levels. It’s the same thing. I am driven by curiosity, driven by a desire to explore.”
It was his expertise in creating art that explores the relationship between people and technology that cemented his involvement in Icoon Afsluitdijk, a design program commissioned by the Dutch government to highlight the iconic value of the Afsluitdijk. “The Afsluitdijk is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Daan explains, “built by hand in 1932. It’s a brutal area, as storms and wind and rain collide. But it’s really the power of nature and culture meeting each other. I was very honored to work on it.”
Daan says that Dutch art has always been inspired by the landscape, and that water is part of the Dutch nation’s psyche. “Dutch artists have always been obsessed with the Dutch landscape. Even artists like Rembrandt or Rubens, they were obsessed with water and Dutch skies. They painted it thousands of times. I feel Dutch, you know, I feel this sort of love and struggle with the landscape. It’s great ingredients for creativity.”
How water influences art, food and culture
Water also saturates our art. Marine subjects have been a favorite of Dutch artists since their earliest works. From Rembrandt’s stormy scenes to British artist Antony Gormley’s giant statue that sits atop a breakwater dam on Lelystad’s coast, you can find water-inspired art all over the country. And whether it’s a serene sea view, frozen canals or an epic naval battle between the Dutch and the Spanish, Dutch artists’ experimentation with light, water and paints influenced, well, everyone.
Across the Netherlands you’ll also find epic examples of the art movement known as 'land art', including works by internationally renowned artists who have been inspired by the Dutch landscape. People who want to enjoy this type of art often go to the province of Friesland or Flevoland, which is also home to nature reserves, beaches, modern architecture, and is the largest flower bulb region. In fact, Aardzee (Earth Sea), one of the largest artworks in the Netherlands, by Dutch sculptor Piet Slegers, can be found in the center of the province. It represents the transformation of the Zuiderzee into reclaimed land. Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, a 26-meter-high statue of a crouching man looking out over the Markermeer lake, sits on a breakwater dam next to the city of Lelystad. Gormley was inspired to create the gigantic artwork by the unspoiled landscape surrounding it.
The cheese market
The Netherlands is famous for its cheese. You can try plenty of different types on the artisanal cheese markets.
The Oesterij grows and harvests Zeeuwse crustaceans and shellfish. The oysters are harvested from oyster pits.
Mussel farmers in Zeeland
Mussel farming is an old Dutch craft. Mussel farmers are also known as the farmers of the sea.
Cow in a meadow
Cows are vital to food supply in the Netherlands. Cows not only produce delicious milk; we also have them to thank for our world-famous cheeses.
Fishing and farming in the Netherlands
Water has also helped power commerce in the Netherlands, none more so than the fishing trade. It was the industry that helped drive the Netherlands to economic prosperity in the 15th century and was mainly focused around the former Zuiderzee. Originally a collection of small lakes known as ‘Almeare’ during the Roman age, this large inland sea was formed after a series of floods around 1200. In the centuries that followed, the Zuiderzee became a lifeblood for the Dutch communities around its shores, but navigating the region remained extremely challenging as ships were often battered by storms or capsized in shallows. To date, hundreds of shipwrecks have been discovered on the former seabed.
The construction of the Afsluitdijk meant that the Zuiderzee ceased to exist, and the new lake created in its place is the IJsselmeer – and eventually the Markermeer, following the opening of the Houtribdijk in 1975. Though the salty seawater is gone and the fish stocks have dwindled, you can still experience this rich heritage by visiting historical maritime towns and villages like Urk, Lemmer and Workum, where the Zuiderzee culture still exists, with each place boasting its own special character.
While at the other end of the country in Zeeland, the Oosterschelde National Park is a world of mudflats, salt marshes and sandbars. In these places you can still discover a rich underwater world filled with oysters, crabs, lobsters, clams, shrimp and many other kinds of fish and shellfish. Several diving schools take visitors on expeditions to discover this aquatic environment, and head to the local restaurants to enjoy up some of the freshest catches you will find, including authentic Oosterschelde lobster, oysters, and clams.
Water has influenced Dutch cuisine, too. When we reclaim land, the silty soil that’s left behind is perfect for growing rich grasses and bountiful produce. These rich grasses helped Dutch cows become some of the most admired in the world. In fact, a Holstein Friesian cow named Pauline Wayne even provided fresh milk for William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States. Pauline lived at the White House, grazing on the grasses of its lawns, and bizarrely was even once interviewed by The Washington Post.
The Netherlands’ well-fed cows produce rich milk, which is also sometimes transformed into another national symbol: Dutch cheese. According to the latest data, the Dutch are the world’s third-largest milk consumers. And, though most people around the world may not know much about Dutch cuisine, everyone knows Dutch cheese.
Dutch island life
Rein shares his town’s love of both humor and water. “I spent most of my life on the water – it’s been a huge factor in my life. For 22 years I was a fisherman and I spent 17 years as a volunteer on rescue boats. Urk is my whole life. I plan to die happily here in 40 or 50 years,” says the 59-year-old.
But a life spent by the water is not all fun and games. When he was six years old, Rein’s fishermen father and grandfather were lost at sea – a tragedy that explains why the former fisherman has a passion for water safety. “Even though I spent my childhood playing around and with water, I was never a water rat,” Rein explains. “Even today, if I’m on vacation and sitting by a pool with a beer, it has to be really hot for me to go in.” He also volunteered as a rescue worker at the KNRM (the Royal Netherlands Sea Rescue Institution) for several years.
Water can be brutal and beautiful.
Panoramic photo of Urk
This former island is situated in Flevoland, considered a characteristic and strong-willed fishing village. Take a look at the famous lighthouse in the photo.
Looking to the future – what is happening and what will happen
Of course, the fact it is still operating is a reminder that the water doesn’t stop coming. Due to climate change, sea levels are rising and the storms are becoming fiercer; the future of our country isn’t safe. Luckily, our universities are producing world-class water engineers who are helping to pioneer new techniques and projects to protect ourselves.
To quote the famous Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff: “Water has nothing to gain from us, and yet we have everything to lose to it – if we do not cooperate.” So rather than fight against water we are continuing the age-old tradition of learning to live with it: using our lakes, parks and even car parks to double as reservoirs that can help combat flooding. In some Dutch cities, fountains, gardens and basketball courts already act as retention ponds. And we’re constantly working to build up defenses provided by the spectacular sand dunes and beaches along our coasts.
Water’s destructive power can cripple societies and environment, exacerbated by climate change. Water is the enabler, if we understand its complexity, value it comprehensively and manage it inclusively. Then water is the leverage for climate action and sustainable development, for the change we seek.
Using Dutch expertise to help others
With a history of living with water, we’re also using our expertise to help other countries who face the threat of floods and droughts. Our experts work across Europe and regularly travel to Asia, America, the Middle East and Africa to advise governments on how to stay safe, work with local partners and businesses on water management, and drive the so much needed science and innovation to the next level. Delegates from countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam often visit our country to see the water management structures – natural or hard defenses, small scale urban inventions as much as our larger infrastructures – in action. We even have our own international water envoy, a specialist named Henk Ovink who spearheads work to help other nations shore up their protections and deal with emergencies. Ovink’s expertise even helped him become a regular guest at the White House, where he was known by President Barack Obama’s team as ‘Henk the water guy’. Henk worked on the rebuilding of the New York region after Super-storm Sandy, and created - with help of many American and Dutch partners - innovative projects for the 'Rebuild by Design competition' to future proof New York.
Though the future is uncertain, what’s definite is the Dutch people’s perseverance and inventiveness. It has helped bring immeasurable prosperity and power to a little nation that was once the most powerful in the world. It’s ingrained in who we are and it continues to shape our character and culture. Without water, where would we be? Or, more importantly, who would we be? We don’t even like to think about it.