Physical Features of Belgium

In geographical rather than linguistic terms, Belgium is divided into three main areas: Lower Belgium in the west; the central plain; and the Ardennes tableland in the southeast.

Lower Belgium is a flat region bordered by the Netherlands and by the North Sea for approximately 40 miles (64 km). The province of West Flanders in Lower Belgium encompasses 193 square miles (500 sq km) of polders, rich lands reclaimed from the ocean. The Campine (Kempenland) to the north and east has a sandy and less fertile soil; beneath the surface, however, lie important coal deposits. Anthracite coal is Belgium’s only major mineral resource; some income is also gained from kaolin, lime, and iron ore.

The central and most populous area of Belgium is a gently undulating plain cut by numerous valleys. It is a fertile region that until recently has also been Belgium’s chief source of coal. The veins that were producing coal in the Borinage zone near Mons have now begun to be depleted and have become uneconomical to mine; this resulted in unemployment there and in the nearby metallurgical center of Charleroi, where the ore deposits are also nearing exhaustion. While the Lys (Leie) and the all-important Scheldt (Schelde, Escaut) rivers are assets to the northwest section of Belgium, the center of the country possesses no large natural waterways.

The Ardennes tableland is separated from the central plain by the Sambre and Meuse (Maas) rivers. The gently rolling Herve plateau near Liège and Huy, which has been so accommodating to invading armies, is fertile, but the coal mines near Liège are suffering the same fate as those of the Borinage. To the south the plateau gives way first to the Famenne depression of woods and meadows and then to markedly higher and more rugged terrain, with the limestone cliffs and wooded hills of the Ardennes providing scenery but little opportunity for cultivation.

Although forests cover only 18 percent of the total area of Belgium, approximately 70 percent of the three eastern provinces is wooded, making possible a moderate lumbering industry. The Ardennes is the least settled region of Belgium, and pursuit of the wild boar, which lives in its thickets, is considered high sport.

The area of the Ardennes does not provide sufficiently difficult terrain to block invasion. Belgium’s lack of a natural border on all sides but the northwest has had a tragic effect on its history. The highest point in the Ardennes, the Botrange, reaches 2,277 feet (695 meters) above sea level. Most of the region is considerably lower, however.

Belgium deserves the appellation “low country,” as the average altitude of the country is 526 feet (160 meters), and the entire northern third is only 60 feet (18 meters) above sea level on the average.