Area 16,033 square mi (41,526 square km)
Population 16.85 million 2014
Highest Point 1,063 ft (322 m)
Lowest Point -23 ft (-7 m)
GDP $869.5 billion 2014
Primary Natural Resources natural gas, petroleum, arable land.
THERE IS A SAYING that God created the world, but the Dutch created Netherlands. Since roughly the 12th century, the people living at the multiple mouths of the RHINE RIVER have reclaimed over a third of the national territory from the sea, through extensive use of dikes, dams, and polders (drained land). The struggle against the sea concentrated much of the national energy into cooperation and efficiency, resulting in one of the most tolerant and most productive societies on the planet.
The Netherlands—sometimes called Holland, which is actually just one of its 12 provinces—is almost entirely flat. Nearly a third of it is below sea level and requires continual pumping to remove excess water. The region’s stereotypical windmills are not merely scenery, but have, since the 15th century, provided the basis for Dutch livelihood and prosperity. Having almost no natural resources, the Dutch instead created one of the largest merchant fleets in Europe, and, at the height of their empire in the mid-17th century, controlled ocean trade from the Caribbean to the East Indies. Raw materials brought back to the Netherlands were processed in ever-growing factories, leading to the development of some of Europe’s fastest-growing cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, the Hague, Delft, Leiden, and Utrecht.
Today, this cluster of six cities is home to about 7 million people, nearly half the Dutch population, in one of the most densely populated regions of the world. The ports are still among the busiest—Rotterdam is the largest port in the world and has grown in importance through the development of large oil refineries. Canals provide easy transport into the interior of the continent, and it is estimated that 40 percent of all EUROPEAN UNION inland shipping is done by Dutchowned companies.
Three major European rivers enter the North Sea at the northwest corner of the Great North European Plain: the Rhine, the Maas/Meuse, and the Scheldt. Most of what used to be the Rhine Delta is now canalized and divided into navigable channels. The river’s two main channels, the Nederrijn and the Waal flow west into the North Sea, while a significant third branch, the IJssel, flows northward instead, into what used to be the Zuider Zee (South Sea), but since 1932 has been closed off by an immense barrier dam and has been renamed the IJsselmeer (Lake IJssel).
Since then, this large body of water has been slowly drained and reclaimed as massive polders, one of which was recently (1986) named the Netherlands’ 12th province, Flevoland. Other polders are being planned for this area. Further to the southwest, the large estuaries of the Scheldt have been secured against flooding by the construction of massive dams, linking together many of the islands of this southwestern province (Zeeland) and shortening the total coastline by 44 mi (710 km). The final dam to be constructed was designed especially to allow the tides to continue to come in but can be lowered in case of flood: a movable dike, considered the world’s most expensive insurance policy. It was completed in 1986 and considered a major victory for European environmentalists.
Aside from the historic center of the Netherlands in these western and southern provinces of Holland (North and South), Zeeland, North Brabant, and Utrecht, the Netherlands also consists of its more agricultural eastern and northern provinces. Gelderland, Overijssel, and Drenthe are more hilly and are home to much of the Netherlands’s vast dairy and cheese industries. Most Dutch farms are small, and only 3 percent of the population is engaged in this profession, but the Netherlands is the third-largest agricultural exporter in the world.
The northern provinces of Friesland and Groningen are again very flat and also composed of many polders. The culture is different here from in the industrialized south; it is closely connected to the North Sea region of neighboring GERMANY, and has its own language, Frisian. Frisian is close to Dutch but also shares a strong affinity with Old English. The Frisian Islands— several long, flat, sandy islands, split between the Netherlands and Germany—form a barrier between the North Sea and the mainland. Finally, there is Limburg Province, far to the southeast, with the Netherlands’s highest elevations. Limburg has historically had greater ties with Germany and BELGIUM, and was attached to the Kingdom of the Netherlands only in 1839, mostly for strategic purposes, but also for its valuable coal fields.
Administratively, the Kingdom of the Netherlands also consists of a few overseas territories, which enjoy full integrated status as equal partners in the Dutch kingdom: ARUBA and the NETHERLANDS ANTILLES (Bonaire, Curacao, Sint Eustatius, Saba, and Sint Maarten). These have been autonomous since 1954, Aruba separately since 1986, and, since the mid-1980s have expressed varying degrees of interest in independence. The Dutch government has made clear its goal for independence for these West Indian islands, but at present the status quo continues. Former colonies INDONESIA and SURINAME achieved independence in 1945 and 1975, respectively, but have contributed to the modern cosmopolitan culture of Dutch cities because of large postindependence immigration, especially from Suriname (former Dutch Guiana), where Asians immigrated to Holland rather than face persecution from a black majority.
Aside from coal in Limburg, the Netherlands has few natural resources. There is salt in the far eastern provinces and one of the largest-producing fields of natural gas in Europe, located near Slochteren, in Groningen province. New discoveries of offshore oil have reduced Dutch dependency on Middle East oil but is not enough to supply Holland’s numerous large industries. Principal export products include chemicals, plastics, machinery, and electronics, produced by some of the largest global corporations: Phillips, Unilever, and Royal Dutch Shell. For such a small, poorly endowed country, the Dutch economy is one of the strongest—ranked 14th in the world—and Dutch statesmen and businessmen are the leaders of much of today’s united Europe.