One Quarter of Amsterdam consists of water
When you include its rivers and lakes, one quarter of Amsterdam consists of water.
Some 400 times a year ambulances are called out for someone who fell into a canal.
In most cases there is no lasting harm. However, according to the latest statistics, on average 18 people a year drown in Amsterdam.
Of the 88 drownings that occurred between 2011 and 2015, 19 — nearly twenty percent — involved suicide.
Peeing into the canals can be dangerous
The Public Health Service of Amsterdam (GGD) says that nearly twenty percent of the drowning victims had indications 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 drownings.
In many cases men, unstable of their feet due to the effect of drugs or alcohol, fell into a canal while attempting to relieve themselves.
Attempting to balance yourself at the edge of a canal while inebriated is difficult — more so when it is dark. You also just came out of a warm pub into the cold of the night. Often something called micturition syncope happens, the name given to the human phenomenon of fainting shortly after or during urination.
Alcohol causes your blood vessels to expand (hence the red cheeks). Less blood flows back to your heart. This causes your blood pressure to drop, which in turn can cause dizziness.
Once someone has fallen into the water it is difficult to get out — even if the unlucky person is not inebriated.
Most quays are quite high, and there are not many ladders or jetties. In addition, many canals are free of house boats, sloops and dinghies that someone would be able to hold or climb onto.
In the past there used to be life saving equipment — such as swimming hooks, lifelines and lifebuoys — attached to bridges, but vandalism and theft made an end to that.
Stairs, Ropes and Grabbing Stones
In an ongoing effort to reduce the number of drowning incidents, the city has installed more public toilets in a number of hot spots.
Now further measures are being taken. An information campaign is being developed to alert tourists and vulnerable people to the danger of falling in the water.
The municipality is also installing vandal-proof ladders, stairs, lifeline ropes and grabbing stones.
In addition, the 20 centimeter high iron fences that for years prevented cars from inadvertently driving into the canals are being removed so that people won’t accidentally stumble over them.
Crime of Accident?
Note: This article was last updated on Friday, March 17, 2017. Older, but pertinent information:
in 2012 it was reported that between 2009 and 2011, 51 people drowned in the canals of Amsterdam.1
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. The vast majority 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.
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.
He reports that each year more than 30 people drown in Amsterdam’s open water (including not just the canals, but also lakes, rivers, ditches, swimming pools, and garden ponds).
About ¼ (7.5 if you take 30 as an average) — say, seven or eight — 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).3
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.”
– Source: 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.
One recent victim was British tourist Daniel Sirrell, 21. The football player fell into the canal during the night of May 20, 2018, while relieving himself into the water of the Kloverniersburgwal. A passerby jumped into the canal, but could not find him. Divers of the fire brigade retrieved Sirrell after a few minutes. Emergency personnel reanimated him, but the young man died in the hospital.
The most recent victim, a 24-year-old exchange student from Ecuador, drowned July 16, 2018, while swimming with friends at Bogortuin (Java Eiland). When his friends realized he was missing they alerted emergency services. Divers from the fire brigade located him within minutes. He was reanimated, but later died at the hospital.
By the way, online forums — such as the ones provided by TripAdvisor — often perpetuate incorrect information. In what essentially is an game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ facts and other 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:
See also the tongue-in-cheek, Safe ways to pee into the canals of Amsterdam
Canal swimming not recommended
Swimming in the canals of Amsterdam — while not illegal — is discouraged.
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.
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
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 people who will try and rescue you.
- This article was first published January 9, 2012. It is updated on a regular basis. ↩
- 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.’ ↩
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