Canals and Waterways of Belgium

Belgium is divided by two major European river basins. Their tributaries form a large network of canals and waterways, passing over big and small towns of the country. In the North West the wide Scheldt River flows 350 kilometres through the flat lands of the country’s north, gaining force from hundreds of minor tributaries, each meandering their own routes through the back-country provinces on the North Sea coast and French border regions from where they spring, while the mighty and ancient Meuse of the south east winds through the famous green hills of its eponymous valley basin, boosted by the Sambre River at Namur and the various tributaries of Flanders and Wallonia as it goes.

Over the last two millennia Belgium has developed one of the world’s most elaborate and efficient systems of navigable waterways and canals with these two iconic Rivers as its backbone. Today they range from the Dutch industrial port towns on the North Sea, right the way through the heartlands of rural border towns of Belgium and into France. 

Where sections of naturally-occurring river route has prevented waterway infrastructure from developing, the Belgian government has engineered some of the most historically ambitious canal links in the world, successfully joining routes between traditionally prolific manufacturing, trade and distribution centres throughout the country, to port towns in the north and elsewhere.

While the history of waterways is a fascinating chapter of Belgium history itself, today the elaborate system of rivers and canals is much more than just a segment in the Belgian historical saga. Hikers and bikers, walkers and river sailing enthusiasts all flock to the low countries of Europe for their fabled waterway tourism that’s truly unique throughout the rest of Europe and even the world. 

What’s more Belgian industry still clings to the waterway routes as a viable mode of cheap and efficient goods transportation in the country. Where roads and rail fail in economy, the nigh on 2000 km of commercially viable waterway here provides quick and reliable options of getting around in Belgium for business owners looking to get wares in and out of the capital, or to ports for international shipping routes and other trading hotspots. 

Canal du Centre

At the system’s heart the Canal du Centre links Belgium’s two major river basins with a 20km stretch of manmade waterway that’s become something of an iconic feat of engineering in Europe as a whole. Since the potential of Belgium’s waterways were first discovered, linking the Meuse and Scheldt basins has been a top priority for canal builders in the country looking to secure a position as the best-developed industrial water infrastructure in the world. 

Geographically linking the two basins was an immense challenge. A height difference of over 95 metres prevented the original plan for canal construction, incorporating in excess of 32 separate locks and step-gates to achieve the gradient required for proper connection, from going ahead. Instead, in desperation the government adopted a controversial proposal from the British engineer and inventor Edwin Clarke, who had already made his name on the river-architecture circuit with a number of successful boat-lifts and gated locks on the Thames and in Westminster.

From 1885 onwards, Clarke oversaw the installation of a series of boat lifts on the Canal du Centre, while the eventual completion of the much-needed system to link the Scheldt and Meuse was delayed with the 1914 onset of World War I. However, the system first conceived by Clarke in the late 19th century was finally completed in 1917 and operated until 1957, when the Belgian government approved plans to maximise the tonnage capacity of the Canal as a whole.

This later plan warranted the construction of a whole new waterway and the boat lifts of the so-called Old Canal quickly fell into disuse. Today Clarke’s lifts enjoy UNESCO heritage status and remain an enduring image of the waterways’ place as an important national institution right on the forefront of the Belgian national consciousness and character. 

Waterway Excursion Routes in Belgium

Today, there are a number of tour companies that offer waterway excursions ranging from single day trips from Brussels to the Canal du Centre, to week long excursions encompassing the whole breadth of Belgium’s waterway system from France to the Netherlands in the east. But, despite playing host to UNESCO World Heritage sites, canal museums and a variety of touristic hotspots, it should not be forgotten that these water routes are very much the life-blood of central Belgium itself. Defiant in their refusal to join the swathes of obsolete transportation infrastructures of yesteryear, the Belgian canals and waterways are still entirely alive and in use; a living, breathing part of the modern country as a whole.