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How many people drown in Amsterdam’s canals?

One Quarter of Amsterdam consists of water

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

An average of 18 people drown in Amsterdam every year — most of them in the canals.

Girls relaxing alongside the Kloveniersburgwal, a canal in the center of Amsterdam

Amsterdam is often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ No wonder, as the city has 165 canals — with a total length of 100 km (60 miles).

If you add the rivers and lakes, a quarter of Amsterdam consists of water.

Each year more than 100 people end up in the water.

In most cases, there is no permanent damage. However, according to research performed by the Public Health Service of Amsterdam (GGD), an average of 18 people drown in Amsterdam every year.1

Surprisingly, currently nobody keeps track, in part because emergency services are understaffed and overworked.

But of the 88 drowning cases that occurred between 2011 and 2015, 19 — nearly twenty percent — involved suicide.

In more than eighty percent of cases, the victim is a man, usually from the Netherlands. A third of the victims are foreigners.

Peeing into the canals of Amsterdam can be dangerous

According to the GGD, almost twenty percent of the drowning victims showed signs of drug or alcohol addiction, were homeless or suffered from mental confusion.

Alcohol and/or drug use played a role in forty percent of the drowning cases.

Ga niet dood aan je hoge nood

Roughly translated:
Don’t die when the need is high

In many cases, men who were unsteady on their feet under the influence of drugs or alcohol fell into a canal while trying to relieve themselves.

It’s difficult to keep your balance on the edge of a canal when you are intoxicated — especially when it’s dark. Plus, you have just come out of a warm pub into the cold of the night. This often results in what is known as micturition syncope, which refers to the human phenomenon of passing out shortly after or during urination.

Alcohol causes your blood vessels to dilate (hence the red cheeks). Less blood flows back to the heart. This lowers your blood pressure, which in turn can lead to dizziness.

Once someone has fallen into the water, it is difficult to get out again — even if the unfortunate person is not intoxicated.

Most quays are quite high, and there are not many ladders or jetties. In addition, many canals are free of houseboats, sloops and dinghies to cling to or climb onto.

In the past, life-saving devices such as floating hooks, lifelines and lifebuoys were attached to the bridges, but vandalism and theft have put an end to this.

Amsterdam has 100 kilometers (60 miles) of canals.

Amsterdam Canals: Stairs, Ropes and Grabbing Stones

In an ongoing effort to reduce the number of drowning incidents, the city has installed more public toilets in various locations. More are on the way.

Additionally, in an ongoing renovation project of the city’s quays and bridges, safety improvements are included. Vandal-proof lifeline ropes and grabbing stones can help someone reach emergency ladders placed at regular intervals.

The 20 centimeter high iron bars that for years prevented cars from inadvertently driving into the canals are also being removed so that people won’t accidentally stumble over them.

Fencing the canals — a frequently heard suggestion — would be impractical and unsightly. Besides, since 2010 the seventeenth-century canal ring is featured on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It remains listed on the condition that no such high impact alterations are made.

Crime or Accident?

A confused man fell into the Oudezijds Achterburg canal. A bypasser jumped in and saved him.

Statistics on the number of drownings in Amsterdam are hard to come by.

in 2012 it was reported that between 2009 and 2011, 51 people drowned in the canals of Amsterdam.2

Local daily De Telegraaf noted that only one of those casualties occurred as the result of a crime.

The other 50 drownings were ruled accidents. Most of them involved men, and according to the newspaper ostensibly ‘most of them were drunk’ when they fell in while trying to pee into a canal.

Varying statistics: Drowning deaths in Amsterdam

“Why do we not warn tourists of the dangers of the canal?” Amsterdam daily Het Parool asks in an article headlined ‘Sluipmoordenaar’ (Assassin):

‘Assassin,’ Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool headlines (February 6, 2016) 3

But how many people — both locals and tourists — actually drown in Amsterdam’s canals?

In 2015 Tobias van Dijk, a researcher with the Public Health Service of Amsterdam (GGD), studied drowning incidents in the city.

The Law: Peeing in public is illegal, and can result in a fine of €150.00 ($163.00 | £128.00)

He reports that every year more than 30 people drown in the open waters of Amsterdam (this includes not only the canals, but also lakes, rivers, ditches, swimming pools and garden ponds).

About a quarter (7.5, if you take 30 as an average) — say seven or eight people — drown in a canal.

But on average ‘only’ 3 people a year are presumed to have drowned while peeing into a canal. That conclusion is usually based on the state of the victim’s clothes (e.g. open zipper or pants undone). 4

Van Dijk notes that forensic research into the actual circumstances surrounding a drowning is complicated.

Note: various media outlets recently reported that, according to figures provided by the police, ‘some 15 bodies a year’ are found in the canals.

However, the Parool article mentioned above says

Every year police finds about ten ‘water cadavers’ in the canals.

Police usually do not have to take long to determine the cause. The drowning victims are sometimes found with their fly still undone.

“People who pee into the canals usually are not Amsterdam locals.”

Police spokesman Rob van der Veen is well-informed regarding the drowning cases. “Often the victims are intoxicated when they leave the warm pub and get out into the cold. When you then go and pee, your blood pressure drops, making you dizzy. That can easily result in a fall.”
Maarten van Dun, Waarom waarschuwt niemand? (Why does no one warn?), Het Parool, February 6, 2016

So we’ve got three different numbers when it comes to how many people a year drown in Amsterdam’s canals:

    7 or 8 (GGD)

    ‘some 15’ (news media citing numbers ‘provided by the police’)

    ‘about 10’ (Het Parool, citing a police spokesman)

There may not be that much difference between these statistics, but each drowning death is one too many.

’10’ is probably the most reliable number, given that Van Dijk’s numbers are based on a percentage of ‘more than 30 people’ who drown in all of Amsterdam’s open water.

By the way, online forums — such as the ones provided by TripAdvisor — often perpetuate incorrect information. In what essentially is a game of ‘Chinese Whispers,’ details of a news story often get changed or embellished. The only remedy is to to trace the story back to a reliable source.

On a lighter note…

Speaking about safety measures — or the lack thereof — police spokesperson Rob van deer Veen says there is one solution that always works: “People should not pee into a canal.”

And Australian comedian Steve Hughes explains why Amsterdam’s canals do not have fences:

Steve Hughes on Health and Safety (BBC Studios). The Amsterdam canals bit starts at 2’20”

See also the tongue-in-cheek, Safe ways to pee into the canals of Amsterdam

Amsterdam Canal Swimming Not Recommended

Swimming in the canals of Amsterdam — while not illegal — is discouraged.

Swimming in Amsterdam: includes information about swimming in the canals (and other ‘wild spots’)

For one thing, there is there quite a lot of boat traffic on most canals.

For another, those who’d like to swim a few rounds should realize that a few hundred of Amsterdam’s houseboats are yet to be connected to the city’s sewer system.

Tourists get an up-close introduction to an Amsterdam canal

Hence, people rescued from the canals are always strongly encouraged to get a tetanus shot.

That said, the ambition of Waternet — the Water authority in Amsterdam and surroundings — is to someday have the canal water of Amsterdam clean enough for people to swim in.

What to do if you fall into a canal

Tracker: Emergency phone number 112 reports regarding people in the water. It shows whether police, fire brigade, and/or an ambulance are called to the scene.

Do not panic, but yell ‘HELP!’ as loud as you can! This is no time for pride.

The record shows that, yes, you will attract plenty of morons who will capture your predicament on their smartphones. But there will also be good Samaritans who will try and rescue you.


Stay safe and dry: Take a Canal Cruise

Want to experience the canals of Amsterdam while staying dry and safe?
Take a canal cruise – Amsterdam’s most popular tourist attraction.


More about the Canals of Amsterdam

Notes:

  1. The most recent research was conducted in 2017
  2. This article was first published January 9, 2012. It is updated on a regular basis.
  3. Maarten van Dun, Waarom waarschuwt niemand? (Why does no one warn?), Het Parool, February 6, 2016
  4. Drownings are no laughing matter. However, the initial report about the number of people who fell into a canal while attempting to relieve themselves led someone to create a satirical video: ‘Safe ways to pee into the canals of Amsterdam.’
Category: Canals, Crime and Safety, News | Related to:

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