On average, a native of Amsterdam, uses about 150 liters of drinking water per day*. Without thinking about it, we turn on the tap for clean water. Now we take it for granted, but in spite of the abundance of water in Amsterdam, the drinking water supply in the capital caused a headache for centuries.
Water from the canals, for a long time an open sewer, was because of its pollution unfit for consumption. Water from the IJ was again too salty. For drinking water they had to rely on other sources. Rainwater from roofs was collected in rain barrels and wells could be achieved in groundwater from deeper soil layers. In addition, fresh water from the Vecht river was supplied by barges. Unfortunately, all these sources also had their disadvantages. In summer, rain barrels were quickly empty, the water in the wells was contaminated by underground seepage from septic tanks and supplying water came at a price. In the second half of the 17th century, hence came the idea for so-called water cellars.
Water cellars were bricked and closed bins buried in the basement or the courtyard level. They were filled with rainwater that ran in the bin from the rooftops through spouts. Via a lead tube, the water was pumped into the kitchen. In order to keep the quality of the stored water level in the containers they had to be truly waterproof. Therefore, the water cellars were walled with baked hard non-porous stone and water-resistant mortar. The inside was covered with glazed tiles or bricks with an additional layer, which was cemented with the flat side against the wall. To avoid the floating of empty cellars in the ground, the cellars were made with a heavy bottom. Floors made of seven layers of brick and nearly 40 cm thick were no exception. The top of the cellars were closed with a barrel vault. Archaeological research of the Department of Monuments and Archaeology shows that the water cellars varied greatly in size. For instance, they detected cellars with a capacity of 2,000 liters up to 100,000 liters. Although water cellars have long been in use, this turned out not to be the solution to the water problem. During quality research in 1794, the water was found to have an excessive lead content. Not only the gutters, but also the lead inlet and outlet pipes where responsible for a sizable lead contamination.
Writer and state advocate Jacob van Lennep suggested around 1840 the idea to transport fresh water from the dunes to Amsterdam. In 1851 he founded the Amsterdam Dune Water Company and they began with the construction of the piping system. Eighteen months later, in June 1853, Amsterdam was the first city in the Netherlands with a fresh drinking water supply. The water came via a pipe system from the dunes near Haarlem to the city. The tap was located at the Willemspoort now Haarlemmerplein. Amsterdammers could buy here for one cent a bucket of drinking water. On the first day 4450 buckets were sold, a number that within a week would grow to more than 10 000 buckets a day. Since 2007, each Amsterdam household is connected to the water supply system. In the episode “Amsterdam, een kolerestad” from the Dutch history series De IJzeren Eeuw (the Iron Age) you can view the origin of the water supply system. And the water cellars? From the nineteenth century, they were out of use. The heavy brick boxes were allowed to conveniently sit in the ground. Today they come back to daylight during foundation repair and basement construction.
* Drinking water is also used to flush toilets. A liter of tap water costs in the Netherlands on average € 0.0015. Taste wise its one of the best in the world, and… without chlorine!