The Netherlands is a country that is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is a parliamentary democratic constitutional monarchy. The Netherlands is located in Northwestern Europe, and bordered by the North Sea to the north and west, Belgium to the south, and Germany to the east. The capital is Amsterdam and the seat of government is The Hague.
The Netherlands is often called Holland, which is formally incorrect as North and South Holland are merely two of its twelve provinces (see terminology of "the Netherlands"). The word Dutch is used to refer to the people, the language, and anything appertaining to the Netherlands.
Being one of the first parliamentary democracies, the Netherlands was a modern country at the moment of its very foundation, and it has always been open to the world. Today, the country has an international outlook. Among other affiliations the country is a founding member of the European Union (EU), NATO, the OECD, and has signed the Kyoto protocol. With Belgium and Luxembourg it forms the Benelux economic union. The country is host to five international courts: the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Court and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The former four are situated in The Hague as is the EU's criminal intelligence agency Europol. This has led to the city being dubbed "the world's legal capital."
The Netherlands is a geographically low-lying country, with about 27% of its area and 60% of its population located below sea level. Significant areas have been gained through land reclamation and preserved through an elaborate system of polders and dikes. Much of the Netherlands is formed by the estuary of three important European rivers, which together with their distributaries form the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta. Most of the country is very flat, with the exception of foothills of the Ardennes in the far south–east and several low-hill ranges in the central parts created by ice-age glaciers.
The Netherlands is a densely populated country. It is known for its traditional windmills, tulips, cheese, clogs (wooden shoes), delftware and gouda pottery, for its bicycles, and in addition, traditional values and civil virtues such as its classic social tolerance. The country is more recently known for its rather modern, liberal policies toward drugs, prostitution, homosexuality, and euthanasia. It also has one of the most free market capitalist economies in the world, ranking 13th of 157 countries on one index.
The country is divided into two main parts by three large rivers, the Rhine (Rijn) and its main distributary Waal, as well as the Meuse (Maas). These rivers function as a natural barrier between earlier fiefdoms, and hence created traditionally a cultural divide, as is evident in some phonetic traits that are recognisable north and south of these "Large Rivers" (de Grote Rivieren). In addition to this, there was, until quite recently, a clear religious dominance of Catholics in the south and of Protestants in the north.
The south-western part of the Netherlands is actually a massive river delta of these rivers and two tributaries of the Scheldt (Westerschelde and Oosterschelde). Only one significant branch of the Rhine flows northeastwards, the IJssel river, discharging into the IJsselmeer, the former Zuiderzee ('southern sea'). This river also happens to form a linguistic divide. People to the east of this river speak Low Saxon dialects (except for the province of Friesland that has its own language).
In years past, the Dutch coastline has changed considerably as a result of human intervention and natural disasters. Most notable in terms of land loss is the 1134 storm, which created the archipelago of Zeeland in the south west. The St. Elizabeth flood of 1421 and the mismanagement in its aftermath destroyed a newly reclaimed polder, replacing it with the 72 square kilometres (28 sq mi) Biesbosch tidal floodplains in the south-centre. The most recent parts of Zeeland were flooded during the North Sea Flood of 1953 when 1,836 people were killed, after which the Delta Plan was executed.
The disasters were partially increased in severity through human influence. People had drained relatively high lying swampland to use it as farmland. This drainage caused the fertile peat to compress and the ground level to drop, locking the land users in a vicious circle whereby they would lower the water level to compensate for the drop in ground level, causing the underlying peat to compress even more. The problem remains unsolvable to this day. Also, up until the 19th century peat was mined, dried, and used for fuel, further adding to the problem.
To guard against floods, a series of defences against the water were contrived. In the first millennium AD, villages and farmhouses were built on man-made hills called terps. Later, these terps were connected by dykes. In the 12th century, local government agencies called "waterschappen" (English "water bodies") or "hoogheemraadschappen" ("high home councils") started to appear, whose job it was to maintain the water level and to protect a region from floods. (These agencies exist to this day, performing the same function.) As the ground level dropped, the dykes by necessity grew and merged into an integrated system. By the 13th century, windmills had come into use in order to pump water out of areas below sea level. The windmills were later used to drain lakes, creating the famous polders. In 1932, the Afsluitdijk (English "Closure Dyke") was completed, blocking the former Zuiderzee (Southern Sea) from the North Sea and thus creating the IJsselmeer (IJssel Lake). It became part of the larger Zuiderzee Works in which four polders totalling 2,500 km2 (965 mi2) were reclaimed from the sea.
After the 1953 disaster, the Delta project, a vast construction effort designed to end the threat from the sea once and for all, was launched in 1958 and largely completed in 2002. The official goal of the Delta project was to reduce the risk of flooding in the province of Zeeland to once per 10,000 years. (For the rest of the country, the protection-level is once per 4,000 years.) This was achieved by raising 3,000 kilometres (1,864 miles) of outer sea-dykes and 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles) of inner, canal, and river dikes to "delta" height, and by closing off the sea estuaries of the Zeeland province. New risk assessments occasionally show problems requiring additional Delta project dyke reinforcements. The Delta project is one of the largest construction efforts in human history and is considered by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
Additionally, the Netherlands is one of the countries that may suffer most from climatic change. Not only is the rising sea a problem, but also erratic weather patterns may cause the rivers to overflow.