Water is a matter of life and death. For a country like the Netherlands with the ground level for more than fifty percent below sea level water control has got for centuries several additional dimensions. Water control can mean controlling the quality of water for drinking, irrigation and other purposes, it can also mean getting water out of a district to ensure a good water level for farming, it can mean protecting such districts against flooding by the sea and rivers. Major parts of the Netherlands lie within the estuaries of the Rhine, Meuse and Escaut (Schelde).
To the best of my knowledge the Western Waters Digital Library (WWDL) is one of the largest cooperative digital libraries. Some twenty institutions from several states contribute to this project on the history of water control in the United States, mainly participants of the Greater Western Library Alliance. The WWDL presents a great variety of documents and images on many subjects, and also finding aids for collections. You will not only find information about irrigation projects, but also on the great dams and their impact on the quantity and quality of water, and in particular information from and about people involved with many projects concerning water.
The peculiar legal nature of Dutch institutions for water control in the broadest sense of the word is their independent origin and – at least to a considerable extent – still independent status. A Dutch waterschap or hoogheemraadschap is not a municipal, provincial or national institution. Some of the waterschappen occupied themselves only with a part of a region, but since a major reorganization in the nineties of the past century only a small number of large water control boards exist, six hoogheemraadschappen and some twenty waterschappen. The modern provinces Friesland and Limburg have now each only one waterschap. A waterschap had and has its own governing body, organizes its own elections for representatives and its board, collects itself special annual taxes, creates its own regulations (keuren), including penalties to be inflicted. In history some waterschappen could even threaten to impose the death penalty for major infractions against its bylaws, for example not complying to orders to repair dikes or not helping against the imminent threat of a flood.
The history of waterschappen has not been neglected by Dutch legal historians. One of the great pioneers was Sijbrandus Johannes Fockema Andreae (1904-1968, grandchild of another legal historian with the same name (1844-1921), the latter mainly remembered for his useful overview of sources for Dutch legal history – the Overzicht van oud-nederlandsche rechtsbronnen, A.S. de Blécourt and A.M. van Tuyll van Serooskerken (eds.) (2nd ed., Haarlem 1923; reprint Alphen aan den Rijn 1981) – and his 1910 facsimile edition of the first edition from 1631 of Hugo Grotius‘ Inleidinge tot de Hollandsche rechts-geleerdheid. Fockema Andreae junior defended in 1934 a thesis on the history of the hoogheemraadschap of Rijnland, the region around Leiden. Some of the works of a slighty earlier scholar, Anton Albert Beekman, have a rather special form: his study Het dijk- en waterschapsrecht in Nederland vóór 1795 (2 vol., The Hague 1905-1907) is a glossary of old Dutch law, and he contributed also a similar volume to the Middelnederlandsch Woordenboek, the dictionary of Middle Dutch. Let’s mention in passing also his major contribution to the eight volumes of the Geschiedkundige Atlas van Nederland (The Hague 1915-1932), a historical atlas of the Netherlands for which he drew all maps.
I could cite many more recent studies. Many touch not only water control but also the reclaiming of land in the fen regions of Holland, the creation of the archetypical Dutch polders. Landmark studies are Hendrik van der Linden’s De cope (Assen 1956; reprint Alphen aan den Rijn 1980) which focuses on the classic medieval reclaiming campaigns, J.L. van der Gouw’s De ring van Putten (s.l. 1967) and perhaps Martina van Vliet, Het Hoogheemraadschap van de Lekdijk Bovendams (Assen 1961). Using the online bibliography for Dutch history you can easily search for more relevant titles.
In the second part of this post I would like to focus on one institution. Leiden is situated on a minor branch of the Rijn, the Leidse Rijn. This river gives its name to the hoogheemraadschap Rijnland. Fockema Andreae worked for many years for this institution. On the website of Rijnland – and also on the website of Delfland – you can find instructive texts in English about the present day working of these water control boards. Rijnland has to deal with both inland water and the sea. By the way, these institutions do occupy themselves with water quality control, too, but drinking water in my country is generally provided by special companies. Some cities founded their own drinking water company. It is needless to say that conflicts of interest can develop between these companies and the water control boards, between farmers wanting a certain water level for their herds or crops and biologists preferring another level for rare plants and animals.
Rijnland has been often the subject of studies and source editions. The oldest surviving registers have been published for the Society for the Study of Old Dutch Law, De oudste bestuursregisters van het hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland (1444-1520). Regesten van de handelingen van dijkgraaf en hoogheemraden, J.H.M. Sloof (ed.) (Leiden 1999). A section of the Rijnland website is devoted to its heritage, with an image database in which you can find also old documents, artefacts, online finding aids and a treasure gallery. One can find further materials for the history of this heemraadschap at the Regionaal Archief Leiden. This archival centre, too, has an online searchable image database. You will find for example building construction drawings submitted to the hoogheemraadschap.
Sometimes the struggle against water has been lost. In the Westerschelde the socalled Verdronken Land van Saeftinge, “The Lost Land of Saeftinge”, is a silent witness to the power of floods and the consequences of insufficient action to keep water out. It is one of history’s splendid ironies that the Hertogin Hedwigepolder from 1904, the last reclaimed land area in the Westerschelde, lies directly next to an area lost definitively after 1570. A sixteenth-century treatise on dike building, the Tractaet of dyckagie by Andries Vierlingh (circa 1507-1579), gives detailed information on the building and maintenance of dikes. Vierlingh sharply criticized those people who fail to fulfill their duties. The 1920 edition by J. de Hullu and A.G. Verhoeven has been digitized by the Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis, The Hague. The Dutch government has conceded in principle to the Belgian government to give the Hertogin Hedwigepolder back to the river in order to guarantee safe sailing for large modern vessels on the Westerschelde on their way from or to Antwerp. This decision has yet to be enforced, and protests against it in the province of Zeeland are vehement. Dutch readers can meet both very different landscapes in an intriguing chapter of a wonderful book by Kester Freriks, Verborgen wildernis. Ruige natuur & kaarten in Nederland (“Hidden wilderness. Rough nature and maps in the Netherlands”; Amsterdam 2010).
Did you spot anywhere in this post the Dutch National Water Management Agency, Rijkswaterstaat? Did I mention the plans to add the waterschappen to the provinces? You can figure out yourself that when you add national and provincial institutions to my sketch of Dutch water control at a meso and micro level things are still complicated. In my opinion creating or having independent institutions for water control is not only a phenomenon for institutional historians but a subject worth of further investigation. This century will witness the growing importance of natural resources, will perhaps even see battles and wars for water, and you are invited to contemplate the example of a region with in this respect a special balance of powers.