Story: Water

The Nether­lands, life with water

There’s one recurring essence that flows through the Netherlands’ history and binds its people together: water.  From the Mesolithic tribes that hunted on canoes to the explorers that set sail and ventured beyond the edges of the known-world, water has always shaped the Netherlands and its people. Despite the fact that the Roman author Pliny the Elder once described it as “a pitiful land flooded twice a day”, the Dutch still successfully transformed it into one of the world’s most prosperous nations. Water gives us life, and we couldn’t live without it.
Whether it’s a life spent sailing the world, cruising along idyllic canals or fishing for the perfect catch, the Dutch people’s relationship with water is known and respected internationally. This is no ordinary love: it is a connection forged throughout history and generations, and a bond that strengthens with each passing day. The flow of water shapes who we are: it meant that we created the world’s earliest public transport network, using passenger boats to travel over the otherwise impassable landscape in the 17th century, and it inspires our biggest cultural events, like the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a 200km ice-skating race along frozen canals. In fact, living with water also informs the direct and pragmatic character of the Dutch – to survive we had to work together and be decisive. This approach even has its own water-themed word in our language: poldermodel.

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.

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Reed farming in the Dutch wetlands

One of the most beautiful locations in the Netherlands is the Nationaal Park Weerribben-Wieden. Here, beside the boat-filled waterways, bicycle trails and centuries-old thatched-roof houses you’ll find the home of Johan and Yfke de Dood, a family of reed farmers whose relatives have tended the land for seven generations.

“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.

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.”

Johan and Yfke de Dood’s insider tips
“There are so many places where you can explore the Dutch people’s relationship with water. If you head to any of the polders you will see evidence of this and how we created our own land to live and work on. Each of them is unique and has its own special character. The area that we live in is truly special. You can sit in nature and not see anyone else, contemplating life with an otter next to you.”

Discover the wetlands

Water management
How water shaped the Dutch

Water mana­ge­ment and the ever-changing Dutch landscape

In January 1953, a huge storm struck the Netherlands. A combination of severe gales and a spring tide saw the sea level surge to exceptional heights. As people slept – seemingly safely – in their beds, the dikes were breached and the region flooded. With no emergency radio broadcasts and the weather stations closed, warnings never came. It was the worst flood in the Netherlands’ history, killing more than 1,800 people and displacing another 70,000.

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.

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. 

Whether you’re sailing through its historic harbor or bedding down in a former water tower turned hotel, the magnificent city of Dordrecht is the perfect place to discover how Dutch people live with water. Situated at a junction of rivers, the Netherlands’ oldest city is home to 1,000 monuments – some of which have now been transformed into restaurants, museums and theatres. In Dordrecht’s backyard is the Biesbosch National Park, a unique freshwater delta comprising about 8,000 hectares of small rivers and streams. Though canoeing through winding creeks and willow forests while spotting beaver dams might be more closely associated with America’s Appalachian Mountains, it’s actually a popular part of any visit to this unique freshwater tidal zone.

Explore our landscape

Using water to create world-class Dutch art

In a former Rotterdam glass factory, now transformed into a futuristic art studio, engineers and designers work diligently to make the impossible possible. This is Studio Roosegaarde, also known as the Dream Factory, home to the Dutch artist, designer and architect Daan Roosegaarde. Sitting among his cutting-edge creations – installations that merge nature, design and technology into breathtaking, thought-provoking forms – he reminisces about his childhood in Nieuwkoop, a Dutch town famous for the Nieuwkoopse Plassen: shallow lakes that were dug for peat harvesting in the 16th century and are now designated as a natural monument.
“I wasn’t allowed to play outside before I had my swimming diploma,” Daan explains. “Water was everywhere. And we always played with it, I remember that very vividly. We built tree huts and we would connect cables between the little islands so we could slide over the water between them.”
You are always exploring; the landscape is constantly changing.
Daan Roosegaarde

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.”

Daan Roosegaarde’s insider tips
“Other than visiting the Afsluitdijk, I would head to Kinderdijk. When you go there and look at the windmills and imagine what people living at that time must have thought. They must have looked like spaceships. Like aliens landed. They are machines and they help manage the water and people live in them. And, at the same time, they relate to our sense of beauty. It’s a beautiful example of how something super practical becomes poetry and how function creates its own fantasy.”

Experience these icons

Art, food and culture
The influence of water

How water influences art, food and culture

In his poem ‘Memory of Holland’, the great Dutch poet Hendrik Marsman writes: “And in every province, the voice of water, with its lapping disasters, is feared and hearkened.” It’s a fitting evocation of the Dutch spirit: water forms who we are, and so water shapes our culture. It’s helped us prosper economically, but it’s also a source of pleasure and creativity. In the warm summer months, we picnic and play at beaches and lakes; in winter we skate on the ice.

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.

As well as using the landscape for inspiration, artists are even using the materials which the Dutch used for water management to create new art. One example is ‘Deltawerk//’ at the Waterloopbos, a 250-meter-long concrete basin which was once used to test flood defenses and was taken apart and flooded by artists Ronald Rietveld and Erick de Lyon to create “a monument of the Dutch struggle against the water”. It is both an ode to the past and great engineering work, and a radical new approach to craft a new cultural heritage in the Netherlands. Another example of this is Daan Roosegaarde’s ‘Gates of Light’ at the Afsluitdijk, which illuminates its monumental floodgates with a retroreflective material that glows in the headlights of oncoming cars. As you drive through, a futuristic landscape lights up around you, basking the colossal structure and your surroundings in an otherworldly light.

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

With a surname that is the Dutch word for ‘pike’, it seems inevitable that Rein Snoek feels a close connection to water. It also helps that he is from the ancient fishing town of Urk, a former island that is now part of the reclaimed land of Flevoland. Urk remains originally independent, even boasting its own distinct dialect and folklore. For example, it’s said there are two types of people: Urkers and strangers. And while babies born in Urk are said to come from a large stone called the ‘Ommelebommelestien’ (Ommel-Bommel Stone) in front of the town’s lighthouse, the babies of people who are not from the island are supposedly born from a cabbage.  

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.
Today, Rein works as a safety specialist for the local fishers’ union. “For most Urkers it’s about water and fishing – it’s just automatic for us. And that’s also true for the Netherlands as a whole. We’ve always been up to our knees in water – we built our land from it and have to fight it constantly to stay above it.”
Rein does not miss fishing, but he still looks back fondly on the comradery of the rescue boats. “We were doing a job together,” he explains. “And really, water enriched my life both on a material level and a spiritual level. As a fisherman, you are on this small world that’s eight by forty meters for five or six days, and with five or six other guys. You are very busy, but at the same time it’s very relaxing – much more relaxing than life on shore.”
Rein Snoek’s insider tips
“The Urk Lighthouse is a beautiful monument – with a history going back 400 years. You can usually climb it. In front of the lighthouse, you can see the Ommel-Bommel Stone sticking up above the water. I also recommend the Fishers Monument, which commemorates all those people lost at sea. It’s a statue of a woman staring out to sea and lists 368 names.”

Enjoy the island life

What’s next?
A future with water

Looking to the future – what is happening and what will happen

Visitors to the Frisian town of Lemmer will spot it from a great distance: the 60-metre-tall chimney of one of Holland’s most spectacular, innovative monuments – the D.F. Woudagemaal pumping station. Housed in a beautiful building inspired by the Amsterdam School style, it is the largest steam-powered pumping station ever constructed and the only one that is still in use. No wonder that fans of engineering from all over the world travel to Friesland to explore this major feat of industrial design, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

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.
Henk Ovink

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.

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Woudagemaal Machine Steam Engine
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