Slides

700 years of tradition down the drain ?

The extreme dry fall of 2011 made the level of the river Rhine drop to the lowest in recorded history. 5 meters (16 feet) lower than normal for this time of year.
Although about 70% of the fresh water in Holland comes from that river, the water level in the canals remained perfectly normal. With thanks to the infinitely complex system of waterworks as developed over these last 700 years by the people of this country, and managed by the Water Boards, in Dutch called "waterschap".

Most European countries know 3 layers of administration : country, province, town. But in the Netherlands, there's a fourth layer : the Water Boards. As the name says, they deal with an existential priority in this country : the control over dams and dikes, the level and quality of the water in the waterways, and the draining of the land.

dike building in the old days


Water Boards go back to the 13th century. When people realised that an efficient defence against the waters was only possible by working together. In a cooperation that had to surpass village or county boundaries as well.
Basically, all the people protected by a system of dikes had to contribute. Even in medieval Holland there never was feudalism with serf peasants. All men were free and farmers owned their land. The more reason to be concerned, to help, to pay, ... and to discuss the matter. Everybody having a say, a vote. People elected their representatives for the Board, in an early form of democracy.
Waterworks were always costly and complicate, so coming to a decision was never easy. Especially when other, neighbouring Water Boards were involved, who could have other interests, or could even be hostile.
But somehow, in the end, they just HAD to reach consensus. Or they would ALL get wet feet, or worse.
This tradition of lengthy discussions, slowly working towards an agreement that is of quality and acceptable for all parties, had an immense influence on Dutch mentality and society. It still has.

satellite picture and historical flood


Times have changed. There are no more small scale, identifiable Water Boards. They all merged into big organisations, each covering large parts of the country.
But they do remain the supreme and overruling authority on water and safety related issues, sometimes to the annoyance of province or state.
And I, and everybody else, still can elect my representative for the Board every 4 years. And I have to pay special water & dike taxes.
But the Water Board has become abstract and distant. For most people, the memories of floods and the urgency of protection have faded. You could say that by doing a good job all these hundreds of years, the Water Boards might also have been digging their own grave.
Because now, provincial authorities want to take over, and eliminate the "old fashioned" Water Boards altogether. They say they can do the job just as well, and for less money. That argument sells, these days.
I'm not so sure. Without waterworks and dikes, Holland would simply not exist. A non political organisation, purely focussed on safety and water management, somehow, that proved to work rather well for more than 700 years.
More on regional history here.
Or for more information on the regional Water Board, and Dutch water management in general : www.agv.nl. (also nice downloadable flyer in English)

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