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Water board (Netherlands)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Gablestone on a 1645 gemeenlandshuis in Halfweg
Gablestone on a 1645 gemeenlandshuis in Halfweg

Dutch water boards (Dutch: waterschappen or hoogheemraadschappen) are regional government bodies charged with managing water barriers, waterways, water levels, water quality and sewage treatment in their respective regions. These regional water authorities are among the oldest forms of local government in the Netherlands, some of them having been founded in the 13th century.

Around 26 percent of the area of the Netherlands is at or below sea level[1] and several branches of the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta run through this relatively small country. Historically there always was a good deal of coastal and river flooding. Flood control in the Netherlands is a national priority, since about two thirds of the country is vulnerable to flooding, while at the same time it is one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. Natural sand dunes and man-made dikes, dams and floodgates provide defense against storm surges from the sea. River dikes prevent flooding of land by the major rivers Rhine and Meuse, while a complicated system of drainage ditches, canals and pumping stations (historically: windmills) keep the low-lying parts dry for habitation and agriculture. Water boards are independent local government bodies responsible for maintaining this system.

An Unie van Waterschappen (the association of Dutch regional water authorities, referring to itself as Dutch Water Authorities)[2] promotes the interests of Dutch water boards at a national and international level. All 21 water boards are members of this association. The Unie van Waterschappen acts collaboratively with other appropriate bodies or institutions to pursue the Association's objectives. It is a member of the European Union of Water Management Associations (EUWMA).[3]

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  • ✪ Reclaiming, using, and protecting wetlands, how the Dutch created the Netherlands
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So good evening everyone. I will be your Master of Ceremonies tonight. So my name is Philippe Van Capellen. I’m a Professor here at University of Waterloo. I’m also the lead of the Ecohydrology Research Group which is organizing this event. So my first task is to, of course, wish everybody a happy World Wetlands Day 2016. And so this is actually the fourth year in a row that we are organizing an event for World Wetlands Day. So for those of you who are not familiar with World Wetlands Day - I think that’s just probably a minority – it actually – it marks the date of the signing of the International Convention for Wetlands and it was signed in 1971 on the second of February in the City of Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea in Iran, and that’s why the convention is also often referred to as the Ramsar Convention. And the convention really calls for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands worldwide. So our special guest tonight for World Wetlands Day is Professor Jos Verhoeven from University – of Utrecht University, and Jos – we are very happy to have Jos here tonight because he’s one of the world’s foremost wetlands ecologists, and his work over his career has essentially touched on all different types of wetlands you can find. They include fens, bogs, flood plains, tidal wetlands, lakeshore wetlands, mangroves, you name it. And his core interest really lies in understanding how the cycling of the major nutrient elements, which is carbon and phosphorus and nitrogen relates back to the biodiversity of wetlands, but also to the water quality in the wetlands, and ultimately to the climate feedbacks. And so Jos is by training and by heart a biologist, and he has joined the scientific staff at Utrecht University in 1979, and he has remained there for his entire career. He became a Professor – in fact, his official title was Professor of Landscape Ecology in 2001. And so now he’s a Professor Emeritus at Utrecht University and in his words it means that he can continue – he can continue doing his job without having to. I think that’s very beautiful, and it’s very poetic. Jos is also the President of the European Chapter of the Society of Wetlands Scientists, and he’s a member of the Executive Board of the International Association of Ecology, which is also the body that organizes the INTECOL Conference, which is the big international conference on wetlands. Jos is particularly dear to my heart because when I was also in Utrecht he actually introduced me to some of the very very special wetlands that you can find in the Netherlands. And I can assure you, those wetlands are very different from the ones we know here in Canada. And so as you can see, his – well, before I refer to his talk, you probably all heard the saying that God created the earth and the Dutch created the Netherlands. Well, today you will see how that’s done, but from the viewpoint of a wetlands ecology. So please join me in welcoming Jos Verhoeven. Jos Verhoeven: Thank you very much, Philippe. Thank you also for inviting me for this event. Indeed, we have always collaborated very nicely in Utrecht in these years and it’s very nice to see how you are doing here now in this new environment and it’s very good for me to see how well it all goes here to my opinion, So it was nice to spend a few days here already before this lecture. And now then this talk. Being from the Netherlands, I must confess that I’m a bit in a difficult position because we are specially famous for draining, destroying and doing away with wetlands. And I’m reminded of that fact always wherever I come, even here. When I was talking to Philippe he was talking about an area nearby and he was saying well, this is also a drained area. It’s the Dutch again who did this. And wherever I come – like you come to Berlin and then people say well, in Potsdam there is a Hollandishes viertel – that means a Dutch quarter – and that was because in the 18th century, the Dutch were called in to drain a lake. And then some of these Dutch never went away. They stayed there. So it is a bit strange task to be here, to explain how we did that, destroy our wetlands, because that’s actually what I’m going to talk about. Because we actually live in them already since 2,000 years, and it still is very interesting to see how we did this and I must say that it’s an ambiguous feeling. I still am also a bit proud of my people. How we actually held strong, because it has been really difficult. It’s not so difficult now any more with all the technology we have. We don’t pay attention to it day by day. But in the beginning, when my talk starts, then the water was an everyday worry. It was very dangerous to live where you were and you had to really pay attention all the time. So then next slide shows you the total picture of this lion which you see. The lion is actually the symbol animal of the Netherlands and also Flanders. That’s now one thing. And you can see immediately on this 17th century picture that the Dutch are also fond of making maps. We are great cartographers because the Dutch travelled the world. They made all these ships and travelled the seas, so knowing where everything was is then of extreme importance, and this of course is a joke of the cartographer because you see the Netherlands is here in this map, and it is a little bit like a lion, so – and you see this is coat of arms of the Netherlands. It has two lions. This is printed on my passport, just like this. So we are always reminded of this and it’s something that indicates the struggle, the battle, against the water, and you’ll see coats of arms later in the talk of provinces where that’s even more clear. And of course the lion also shows up in sports events. We are proud of our soccer team, or maybe were in the past. Maybe I should not talk too much about this. So it’s, yeah, an important animal where we are, and this gives you some indication of what I’m going to talk about. So we start in Roman times when we really had all the wetlands still. They were all intact and pristine, but still we already were living in them. And we start with the Romans because the only way to know something about that time is to read what the Romans have written. There are no other records. And then we go to a period much later when we started to build dikes, where we are so famous for, and created polders. I’ll explain later what polders are. Farmers and monasteries working together to do this, to protect the people that lived in these wetlands. And then there came another period again where influential rich people started to invest, to actually reclaim the land and make it suitable for agriculture. And then there is this last period where this all became much more high tech, already starting in 17th century, large scale areas lakes were made dry with windmills and all this kind of technology. So to show you where we are, this is actually showing that the Netherlands is the common delta of three major rivers and there is another river which is close by, the Ems. So the Schelde in Flanders, the Maas from France and the Rhine in Belgium. And by the way, the Rhine has always been the boundary, the border of the Roman Empire. The Limes it’s called. Denmark is in the north and you see Britain too. So here you already can see what the Netherlands looked like in the course of time. This is – you see that in the beginning, 2,000 years ago, we just have quite a landmass. There is a lake in between. This is a freshwater lake fed by all these rivers. But then you have periods that the land seems to be breaking up, and that’s partly due to human activity, and also because sea level rose a little bit faster in these years but also what we did to the land. Many lakes appeared also inland. And then again, this area also shows quite – many open water areas that originally were land. They were wetlands, but still. And then from 1900 you see that there is land gained again. So more and more technologies made it possible to drain lakes like this again, made them into land again, and here there are very recent polders – these three are from the 20th century. So the newest one is only from 1970. So these are big areas now, very fertile land, very wanted by farmers, and producing very good crops. This is a map of the current protected wetlands under the Ramsar Convention of the Netherlands. What strikes you, you see that’s quite a nice area, 800,000 hectares, but most of it is actually open water, and it’s also a bit because the definition of Ramsar of wetlands is quite wide. So all coastal areas to a depth of 8 metres are included. And you see that not many areas on land only – there are, of course, but it’s not much in terms of area. So we do have wetlands of international importance, but now I’ll show you the map of wetlands 2,000 years ago. And that’s this one. And now you see that actually the whole western part of the Netherlands were wetlands. And specifically they were peatlands. So all the brown, the dark brown areas are bogs, raised peatbogs. The light brown area are fens, and then we have here river flood plains. We have saltmarshes here in the north and we have also tidal flats. So also very salty areas. So you see that more than half of the whole area is wetland. Very different from the current situation on the Ramsar map. Maybe I don’t have to say this very much here because you do have a lot of peatlands. So you know probably all this, but I do rehearse it again. The two types of peatlands because they were so prominent in Holland – I still do this – fens are also affect not only by rainwater but also by groundwater or surface water and therefore they are relatively well buffered and nutrient rich and the vegetation is relatively productive and species rich. And this is one of the sites the Philippe referred to, which are the fens in the Netherlands. They can be really nice and species rich, and mostly they are really small systems. And bogs are only fed by the rain. You probably all know that. That’s why they are nutrient poor. The rain is not a rich source. They are very acidic and the vegetation is really dominated by peat mosses that form a sponge. And this is a picture taken in Estonia. In Europe we do have very nice large raised bogs, and this is actually how a lot of the Netherlands would have looked like 2,000 years ago. Very difficult to get around in. Note these big bogs. And then this is also a picture taken from a scientist from Estonia who has depicted very nicely how in the course of maybe 4,000 years a wet depression in the landscape is first filling up with fen peat – and this is blue. It’s actually the lake itself, the lake sediments, and then as soon as it’s high enough that the groundwater and surface water cannot reach the surface any more, then you get sphagnum, the peat mosses, and then you get a thicker and thicker peat layer, a raised bog, and not only the bog becomes thicker, but also the wet spot in the landscape becomes larger and larger because it grows over the formerly dry sides. So this sponge is actually sitting in the landscape. And it was very important that these bogs were raising because the sea level was rising too in these 2,000 years. So in the Netherlands, there was a bog formation which could keep pace with sea level rise. Everything was perfectly above sea level, this map that I showed. We did have very nice river landscapes like this that we can still find in Poland, for instance with very nice gradients from the river channel. This is an artist’s impression how the Rhine maybe could have looked like when it was still a living river that could meander and then you have landscapes like this. Maybe placed in the year 1,000. There are people here. You can see that. This is also indication of use by humans. So forested floodplains are the rule in these landscapes in our latitude, and then we did have also quite some saltmarshes in the southwest and also in the north. Very typical system without trees, grassy vegetation, creeks, for the tides, and then brackish. And these looked mostly like this. And now we are still going back again to Roman times, and it’s interesting. I already said the Dutch were great cartographers. This map was made at the end of the 17th century to actually indicate what people at the time thought that the Netherlands would have looked like 2,000 years ago. And current geologists think that they were right. They think that this map is pretty accurate. It does represent how the Netherlands looked like in these years, and there are a number of important things to notice. Here we have this freshwater lake. We do not have much open water here, which we do have now This is a lot of peatlands and clay landscapes, saltmarshes, and here we have the river Rhine again. And in those years, 2,000 years ago, the river Rhine was the boundary between the Roman Empire and Barbaria. So this area was lived – people lived here but these were mostly the Frisians and the Chalks and other tribes. And you see all these dots here. These are dwelling mounds where these people lived on the saltmarsh. And it’s interesting to help everybody to imagine how the landscapes must have looked like. It’s nice to read Roman writers and especially Plinius. Plinius has written an nice account about landscapes because he was in the Roman and he was a very special person because not only was he a good military strategist, he also was a very lively man who always looked around and observed everything, and also wrote everything down. And rumours are that he never slept. Even when he was taking a bath, there was somebody who worked for him who was still reading books for him, because he wanted to know everything that was known, and we owe it to him that he described what he did when he went on a mission outside the Roman Empire. So his mission was that he had to start in Utrecht in this army camp and then take a route to – all the way here, where the Ems river is located and he had to find the tribe there called the Chalks and he had to give them a big punishment because there had been some uneasy things in the past and they really had to be beaten. So there were five ships that went on with his fleet, so he took first the Rhine and then the Vecht, which is a river which is also close to Utrecht, and then he describes that he is sailing here mostly with rowing boats through a very very thick forest with the floodplain of this river, and then he comes in this open area and there had been really a storm and there were trees floating as a whole in the water. So he said how difficult it was – he writes that – to really sail around them, to navigate, and he even says it looked like we were fighting against the trees. We were – we had a war with the forest. And then he became a bit worried because he had informed himself very well, and he knew that he had to pass here an area where the Frisians live and he had been reading about an earlier expedition where people had to be beat up the Frisians because the Frisians had not paid their taxes. The Frisians had cows. They do that still. But 2,000 years ago the Frisians already had cows and the Romans demanded cow skins from them and they didn’t pay. So he had been reading about this expedition that happened ten years before he went and then this Roman guy had been persuaded to go into this land from the forest and then he had been taking heavy equipment because there were all kinds of creeks that had to be crossed with heavy equipment and then the Frisians really ran away and then everybody got stuck in the mud. So – and when everybody was stuck in the mud, the Frisians came back and beat them all back into their boats. So when Plinius was reaching this area, he became extremely nervous because he was a very experienced soldier and travelled all through Europe but there had always been forests. But now suddenly there came a very large open plain. No forest. Only grassy vegetation and clay. And he really saw this is the area where the Frisians are. So now let’s be very careful because we still have to go all the way here. And then they decided to – because already the Frisians made noise and made sure that they had been seen. So they camped overnight and then he says very happily that a very boat came rushing in to say that the whole operation was called off because the Emperor Claudius had decided that no adventures outside the Lime had to happen any more. So very happily he came back, but at least the story gives us some picture of the landscape how it looked like. And what were these Frisians then? They were living in Friesland, so in this area with saltmarshes in the north. Here. This green area. And here there were peatlands. And all these dots are dwelling mounds. So these Frisians 2,000 years ago – actually already longer ago. There was a period of 1,300 years that people have been living on dwelling mounds. And you can see how that worked. They were made of clay and cowskins and garbage. And this gives you a picture of how such a dwelling mounds must have looked like. So there were a few houses on them and you lived a little bit safe, but there were days that only the dwelling mounds were sticking out of the water, and when you had a real big flood you could have to climb your roof to be safe. And you can still find these dwelling mounds now in the Friesen landscape. There are a few left. Originally there have been 3,000 of them and they are really standing out in the landscape very much and you can see here there is a farm on such a dwelling mound and it’s also interesting to note there – and we will see that later on also in the talk – that these communities started to be really rural and poor, and they were grazing the cows on the saltmarsh. That was their resource. But they had quite a strategic location because when the Roman Empire had collapsed there were still more and more – there was trade possible between the Rhine – they were close to the Rhine – and Scandinavia. So they started to be involved in that and by the year 800, this terpen community – terpen means dwelling mounds – was actually quite wealthy and they were very well – but then – well, the Vikings came and really robbed a lot of this so they had again a difficult time. And I must say that these dwelling mounds, of course, were not that safe, so people started to build dikes, mostly on a small scale, and to protect little bit larger areas from flooding. And that intensified when this very strong event happened. You can see that we are now in meantime in a time that Christianity has arrived, because the names of these floods are all inspired by saints and what happened there is almost unimaginable because this all used to be land. So this is actually in the northwest of the Netherlands, peatlands. These are all peatlands and already at the first flood here in 1170, this whole area was just eroded and probably thousands and thousands of people died because people were living on these peatlands. There were even monasteries. And then there were a few of these other big floods and then people started to think we need to do some more things. We need to be smarter. And the monasteries also became involved there. We cannot imagine this now any more because the north of the Netherlands is Protestant, but in these day it was, of course, not, and there were many monasteries also in Friesland and in the north and they were together. They actually organized it a little bit better than the separate dwelling mound people. So the monks, together with the farmers, started to build dikes. And in 1250, they managed to do this. So this is quite a large area that they have been able to surround with a single dike. And you can still see all the dwelling mounds on this picture, but they became now less important because you really could make sure that only maybe the very strongest floods would harm you. And this gives you a picture of developing technology in trying to live in wetlands. You start with ditches and just a dike, and then you get another stage which is a bit underestimated but which has been really important. That’s the so-called in Dutch, klapdijk. It means that you have a dike but it has a hole and there is a door and the door will be pushed shut if there is high water on the outside. And then still the rainwater can be drained away at low tide. So this is a very good invention and then it was more and more possible to make a dike ring around a whole area and to create a polder. A polder is an area with a manipulated water level and it’s typically Dutch term and you can see that later on we were also able to not only drain by gravity, like here if you have low tide, but we started to be able to pump around the year 1400 by the windmills, and then you have rows of windmills which can really pump over a very high gradient and then in 1800 we have steam and then finally diesel and electricity. That’s how we keep our country dry at the moment. And there are many many pumps which really keep the water levels in our polders at a certain, often minutely controlled within centimetres, water level. So we not only use the word polder for this area, but we also have now the verb polder. Because a very typical characteristic of Dutch people is that we always have to work together. We have to work together to keep the polder dry because it’s in the interest of all of us, and that’s a very important obligation. So we have been learning to compromise and that’s also something that has translated into politics. So to polder means that you strike political deals. And you see a cartoon here where you see people – different political parties. We have ten political parties in the Netherlands. So nobody gets ever the majority. You always have to make a coalition. So these guys after the elections, they sit together and they make a plan and what they do then, that’s just a contract between them. And together they have the majority and then they have some kind of a government contract and Parliament has very little to do because if there is something the government wants, then their parties will vote for it. And the other parties can have no power. So this is another example that it even goes further because this is our current Prime Minister, Rutte, with a Vice Prime Minister. So he is of the Liberals, so that’s to the right in the Netherlands. Yeah, it’s a little bit different than here, and this is a Socialist. So we have two extremes in one government. That’s also a bit strange, but it works in a way. And then not only they have these deals together, but they also negotiate with a representative of all the business entrepreneurs and business community, and with the unions. So they make deals about how much should wages increase and then the unions say, okay. If you keep it that, then we will not protest. You know, these kind of things are being done. So poldering is something that is very typical for Dutch people. Okay. Now how – we have now seen that we have dikes, but how have all these peatlands been transferred into agricultural land, because that’s actually what has happened. And this process you should see it like this, because a bog – if you have a bog of the size that I just showed on the map, you have to go to Sweden. Then you see this kind of picture. And in the Netherlands such a bog looks like this. So some people have worked on it you can say. And of course all by hand in the past. And in the next picture you see that there are many ditches in the landscape to drain the water away and this picture gives that for the area north of Utrecht. So this was one bog. Here you have a river. And you see here all these different polders. This is, for instance, a polder. And then you start with digging a canal, and also the spillback is then your dike. Here you place the farms, and then you drain with these drainage ditches the water into this canal. That’s the way they did this and you can see the years when these areas were reclaimed. So starting close to Utrecht because it was the Bishop of Utrecht who did this. He was a very influential rich guy. So he then paid for making this polder and then he sold the land to farmers, and each farmer got one strip, and you can see on the next picture that all the farms – you have an aerial picture – you have one strip of land and you have your farm here. That was the situation in the 14th, 13th, century. And these farmers did very well in the beginning because the peat was decomposing. There were many nutrients in the peat that became available and they were growing crops. It was going very well. And it was the first time that people – ordinary people like you and me – could own land. So it was given to them or sold to them by the Bishop. And well, the farms now in this area look like this. It’s a nice area. And here you can see another feature what has happened here after a very long time of farming. Things became wet because the peat sinks. You are losing the peat because it is converted to CO2 and water, because there is oxygen coming in the peat. And then it becomes wetter so your crops at some point will not grow very well any more. And we had to wait until windmills came to drain deeper, but for a long time farmers were a bit desperate and they started actually to sell their land in blocks. So they were dredging the peat. Let it dry. And sell it – they sold it to cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht where there was a lot of demand for heating fuel. And you can see in the back of this picture that this can be a bit dangerous because if you leave these areas in between these dredging ponds narrow, then you may have erosion and then you have the enemy water in your backyard. So that has created many lakes in the Netherlands because they did this too drastically. Exploration of peat created a lot of lakes that have created dangerous situations. So this is a picture showing these turbaries, how large scale it was, but all by hand of course. Many people worked like this in these days it seems. And well this is actually a nice picture of what happened to the land level. You can see that the sea level rose in all this time, in all these millennium, and the land level was subsiding because it was nicely above sea level in the beginning because the bogs could keep pace with sea level rise, but we drained them. And then you get the subsidence and now the average is minus two metre and in all these lakes you are in minus four metre. Four metre below sea level. We still have to pump that water away all the time to the present day. And you can see this in this landscape picture a bit better. You start 900 with a peat layer which is purple in this picture. And in the course of time this is all shrinking away and you end up with a situation where they canal has a much higher level than the level of the ditches in your landscape. That’s why sometimes in the Netherlands you can see a ship very high on the horizon. Higher than you would think. So then we have a turning point because now we are in a situation that a lot of water has been created in the backyard. You know, we may have protected from the sea a bit, but we have made it really dangerous. And then we have the 17th century. That was the century that the Dutch traveled the seas. We were colonials. We got lots of money. And all these wealthy merchants, they were looking for investments and also they of course wanted to not only have a nice house in Amsterdam, which you can still see, but they also wanted to have a house somewhere else where they had a little castle with a nice garden. And therefore some of these lakes began to be made dry and this guy, called Leeghwater – that means empty water – so that is a name he gave himself. He was very proud. So he actually developed the technology and also he was so brave to really start to pump one of these very big lakes, 7,200 hectares, dry with windmills. So he placed 50 windmills around the lake. They were turning for three years and it was dry. This is actually a map of this area. The Beemster. It’s now very famous for its cheese and also for – it’s very good farmland. And well, there are a few villages here and the next picture is taken in one of these villages. Here you have a statue of Mr. Leeghwater. He is of course honoured there. You are talking about minus four metre sea level, but it’s still dry there. You can see it. And this is actually what most of the land initially was used for. It was used for these rich people who wanted to have a big house and a very nice French designed garden. Not so far from Amsterdam. Maybe 15 kilometres. And we have lost all of those. Not a single one is still there because this land is such good farmland that it’s now only used for growing all these crops. And this gives you – this is from one of these other similar lakes where the windmills are still left. So you can see – here you see they are going around all the time and they were just turning for three years to make it dry. And in this Beemster polder we still have some very nice estates. You can see some nice pictures of big farms. But this is actually the basic picture that you see. A lot of intensive agriculture of – I think these farmers have a very good income. So here you can see the Beemster and some other of these lakes. They were all one after the other, they were just made dry. And there is one here that’s the Haarlemmermeer and that one stayed – there were many plans to do it, but it was much bigger. So it is – you can’t see it in whole, but it extends all the way down here. And it was really seen as an important dangerous lake because this is connected to sea and you have a very large sea branch here, estuary, and you see that is almost connected. So if this would ever be eroded, that would really be a lot of loss of land and a dangerous situation. So finally, only after steam came, this lake was also pumped dry. So there were two of these steam stations that did this in three years’ time. And there is quite a good chance that if you have ever been in the Netherlands that you know this area and that you have been there because it’s actually where our national airport is located. So that is in the Haarlemmermeer and it is minus four metres and this means that only the first class is above sea level. So it gives you another reason for buying a more expensive ticket because you are just a little bit safer. So a few pictures of what we did with the rivers, because they were very important also for us of course, as you can imagine, and they were also giving us really problems often, and I will also show you something about disastrous inundations and then finally some more about wetland protection. That’s something we really do. I have to convince you that even the Dutch, we are really protecting wetlands now. You don’t believe it but it’s true. So if you think about the rivers, this is a picture of an artist again, and the situation here is still that the river can still meander. So it’s a meandering very large river, but you can see that there are already dikes. So even in the 17th century dike rings are also placed around the rivers. And you see some clay pits. People taking the clay for bricks. You know that our houses are made of bricks and the rivers are actually the source of all the clay. A little bit later, you see that there is now also another protected area with a lower dike here, so that even between this big dike and the smaller dike in the summer there is no flooding so you can have some agriculture here. And still the Dutch never have dikes too narrow because if there is a high discharge, the water has to go somewhere, otherwise you have immediately an inundation. So the dikes are quite wide apart, but there are also so-called summer dikes to protect what is here in the flood plain. And then in the 1920s, something else happened which was very significant because the meandering was stopped by building all these growings. So these are made of basalt blocks, so and they freeze the channel. So the channel can no longer move in all these directions in meandering. It’s very important also for navigation because the channel remains narrow and doesn’t have to be dredged, so that quite a smart move. And you can see the brick factories. They are very close to the river. And again, this agricultural use which had become really traditional. And well, if you go back in time, you see that not only in the north we had dike rings, but also around the rivers and also in the southwest. The southwest is an area we have not talked about very much yet, but that was also quite a dangerous area with many islands and many – yeah, very close to the sea and closer to the channel also. And this is actually the coat of arms of the Zeeland province which is in the southwest. And well, you can see that the lion is actually wading in water here. And they have also this logo or this saying, Luctor et Emergo, which means I wrestle and emerge. So it’s really telling you about the struggle against the water and that’s something that you really should remember, that it has always been dangerous and only recently we have been able to control it a little bit better. So we had these dikes, but still you can see that there were major inundations even then. This was the largest polder in the Middle Ages that was ever built. The Groote Waard. And this actually flooded in 1491 – sorry, 1421 – and has never been drained again because this was a major disaster costing 10,000 lives. So – and then in the southwest and in Amsterdam, we also had areas that became flooded regularly. We also have some pictures of that. This is an unknown Dutch master who made a picture of the St. Elizabeth flood in 1421. You can see that the dike breaks. Water pours into this Groote Waard. There were 11 villages. And, yeah, that is where these – so many people have been drowned, and the rumours are that these towers of all the churches, the 11 towers, have been sticking out of the water for tens of years after that, and never was this built up again, this area, because it was such a big disaster. And also along the rivers we had inundations and you can see in this picture it was not really rare. If you see how many of these are indicated, mostly – not all of them were very large, but they were all dike breaches. And the most important one, the most important disaster in the river area was in 1855 when we had a major flood and there was also a lot of ice on the river, and we have also some images of that because there was a painter, John Veltens, who painted 25 panels of what he saw in this area and there was so much damage and also lives were taken that the king really took this very seriously and has been visiting the area and given money. And this is actually, this panel of all these paintings that John Veltens painted. It is in a museum in Nijmegen now and I came across it – I just saw it when I visited the museum and then I asked if it would be possible to have high quality pictures to show in a presentation and they sent them to me, so I can show you a few of them a little bit more closely, which really give you a picture of the devastation. And as in many Dutch paintings, look at the sky. The skies are always more than half of the picture and are emotionally very impressing. Yeah, you see whole areas have been flooded with water and then you also had the ice which was covering houses and, of course, was making it even much worse And, well, some more pictures of how devastated such a landscape looks. And here you see that in these days there were also dams and dikes made of wood. So they not only worked with dirt. We also know that from the sea dikes that they often had a wooden inner side. Even sometimes filled with seagrass. All kinds of techniques have been used in the past for that. And this is then actually a real picture of the last major flood along a river we’ve had in the Netherlands, in 1926. And then I have to talk also about the latest major flood in the Netherlands on the sea side, in Zeeland. This province with the coat of arms with Luctor et Emergo. They were very terribly struck in 1953 and I vividly remember this myself because I was living where this blue dot is in Breda and it was the first of February in 1953. It was a Sunday. And I still – I was a four year old boy. I remember still that we had not slept because of the gale during the night. Roof tiles had come off of our house. All the church bells were ringing all the time, the whole day in our town, and we were all gathered around the radio to hear the disaster unfold. And that was really – yeah, it was a terrible thing. All these islands had been flooded deeply. So it was very difficult for these people to escape and it was something that I still vividly remember very well. And what happened after that was that the government launched the delta plan. So that was in 1958. And that was really a major major major constructing plan to make the shoreline shorter, to protect the southwest finally in a proper way, and well you see the estimated costs were one billion guilders at the time. The real costs were five times higher and a lot of estuary and wetland habitat were lost again by all this. So you see here what has happened. Dams have been constructed to dam off the sea branches. Some of them are actually half open because here we have river water that has to go through here. So these are – these have sluices. There is a half open dam that permits tides, but I must say, the people here, they live now much more convinced of safety. You know, they are all feeling that they are safe and we don’t know what climate change will bring us but this is really so – such a collection of high dams that we can really get some more sea level rise without any problems. But the losses were larger than expected and I still remember that I was a student at the time when this was half finished, so it took 25 years to finish all this, and I did an internship here in Zeeland, and there were many ecologists here that were opposing these very major engineering works, hardcore engineering works, especially because other solutions were possible because this is actually connecting the harbour of Antwerp with the sea, and of course there was no dam here because the Belgians would not have liked that so much. And here they just increase all the dikes, which was perfectly possible too. So that would have been another option, saving more of the estuary and habitat than now. But it’s all a discussion point. Okay. And then we go to the last part of my talk, and more about restoration, and about wetland protection. We have turned around a bit. We have lived in these wetlands all the time with dangers. We have really modified them, destructed a lot of them, but not people more and more cherish them too. So engineers and ecologist started to work together more, to work with nature and I will show you a little bit of examples for the river because this was one of the events that spurred this new attitude of engineers and ecologists, because in 1955 we had a very narrow escape in the river area, and I still remember because my wife is from this region, in between the rivers, and my wife called her sister on this day and she asked how is it? Are you already bringing the furniture to the top floor of the house? And then her sister said, ah, of course not. It will not be so bad, you know. But then half an hour later she called back and she said I’ve been on the dike. We are moving all the furniture, all the way up all the time now. It’s really terrible. I’ve never seen something like this. So they were very frightened and 100,000 people have been evacuated from this area then. Nothing happened. So we really narrowly escaped. But then a new plan for the river dikes was launched and now the engineers were really working together with ecologists and the idea was now this area that I talked about earlier in between the winter dike and the summer dike used to be used for agriculture, clay pits, you know, stone factories. But the clay industry has now been persuaded not only to take the clay in the clay pits, but to take all the clay. And then you are left with a much nicer sandy landscape with all kind of gradients where you have maybe side channels and then we have – this was all also supported by the program of the Dutch government space for the river. We have to give the river more space. So this created also then much more beautiful landscapes and a much better situation for biodiversity. And this picture, which I am not going to go through all the way, gives a nice collection of all the measures that have been put on the table by the ecologists together with the engineers to make a better situation for safety and also for biodiversity in the floodplain. And if you now visit some of these flood plains, you no longer see agricultural land but you see these areas where you have large herbivores, but that was something the engineers were emphasizing. We don’t want too many trees because the trees are blocking the flow. Because – and you have a natural development of a forest in such a floodplain, so the large herbivores help to keep the vegetation low. And now a very last example which this is actually the nature policy plan of the Netherlands. You can see all the green areas are nature reserves. But I want to specifically points to this area here. The Oostvaardensplassen. So here you have the three polders that were made dry in the 20th century. The newest ones. But there was one area here where this failed a bit. It remained wet. It was a a little bit lower and they tried several times to really drain it but it didn’t work very well and they said, oh, well, we do this later. Leave it for the moment. And then within ten years, this became one of our most important wetlands for breeding birds. So we had vegetation forming, very abundantly, very fertile ground, freshwater. And so it was quite an eye-opener and people started to call for protection and that’s what actually happened. And now I’m going to show you a video which has been – which is a trailer for a movie. This movie has been shown in the cinemas of the Netherlands two years ago, and was in that year the most successful movie of all. So it beat Hollywood and all this other stuff. And it is actually about the Oostvaardensplassen and let me try if I can put this in motion. [Video Playing] This has really now become a remarkable area where people have decided to leave, to introduce these large herbivores and the ecologists have decided that no management further was allowed. This is pristine nature and it’s just reminding of 2,000 years ago. Let it all go. So what happened, of course, is that these animals are breeding and the numbers really become higher and higher and that has created some problems at least. But what I must say is that the diversity is phenomenal. The number of bird species breeding there is enormous and it’s just a romantic idea, of course, of the ecologists to have no management, to really let it all go. But then it has some drawbacks because every year 25% of these big animals dies because of starvation. They have no food, especially at the end of the winter because this is a very fertile ground. Lots of primary production of plants but then that means that all these animals get a lot of young because they eat a lot. There’s a lot of food, but then comes the winter and in the winter there is no food, and then they have to go through the winter on their reserves and that’s not always possible. So there have been discussions in Parliament about this. Many people were very worried about all these starving animals and they didn’t want this any more and they have now a management where every year some of the animals are hunted just to control the numbers. So they go in in the fall and they select the animals of which they expect that they will never make it through the winter. And that’s then one – the only management they do. Maybe. Because there is something else to talk about, because this is actually how it looks like. So you see it’s this whole area and here you can see that there have been attempts to drain it definitely. All straight lines. And this area is the wettest but all the big animals are in the dry part. The dry part is separated by a dike. This is where all the geese and the birds are and this is where all the herbivores are. And also so strange that the dry part has a lower elevation than the wet part. That’s typically the Netherlands. Everything is upside down a bit. And not only that, but if you look at this map you can see that there are as many as eight different water level sections in this reserve. So it means that everything is below sea level, and the water level is minutely controlled. It may be there is no management but there is water management and very strongly too. So – well, that’s a little bit of a paradox. Everybody is very enthusiastic now because everybody has seen the movie. Now they all want to go there. So we have safaris there. People are really riding around in this area and they enjoy it very much. They are all very proud that a David Attenborough-like movie has been made in the Netherlands. This is really possible. So yeah. So the pluses are there, but there are some minuses. Extreme control of the hydrology, non-natural hydro period. No dynamic water levels. It’s very counterintuitive for a wetland ecologist, very strange. Inversion of elevational gradients and not so much habitat diversity. And maybe this is the last slide for the Dutch wetlands in general. We were a vast delta with all these wild wetlands, very beautiful probably. The land level was keeping pace with sea level rise and it was always a challenge environment for humans, but it didn’t prevent them from settling there. And well, early settlements destroyed wetlands and created even unsafer conditions. No, there were many engineering works in the beginning that made things worse. And then later on, even people started to learn but you know even in 1953, there was this big disaster, and so it’s still dangerous. But generally, it’s very nice to live in the Netherlands. I can say that. It’s a fantastic place. And even if you appreciate it more, you even like that these ships are there higher than the land and that you have to explain to people that water not always flows from high to low, but sometimes the other way around. And well, with all the protection that we have now secured, I think that we can be a little bit proud of the wetlands of the Netherlands too. So thank you very much for your attention. Philippe Van Capellen: So we’re running a little late, so we still have time for one or two questions. So are there any urgent questions or remarks or comments? If not, maybe have one comment, and one thing you didn’t mention is that all these water works and all this poldering and these dikes also actually led to the defence system of the Netherlands starting in 19th century. So maybe you want to comment on that. Jos Verhoeven: Yeah. I think that was already hinted at when the Friesians persuaded the Romans to go in the clay and then beating them up. That has been a tactic which we have applied all the time, so whenever we had an enemy, we were sure to really try to get them in a place that they would sink. So that almost always was successful. Philippe Van Capellen: And the Spanish and the French both experienced that. Jos Verhoeven: Yeah. That’s right. And also there were – at some point we had also a whole system where we could flood land, agricultural land, as a barrier to really, yeah, distract armies so that they had to go into a lake, you know, so – and that has even been operational until the 1960s, I think. We had the “waterleiding” and only recently they have decided that we have now airplanes and it’s not necessary any more.



Origins and early development

1654 painting by Cesar van Everdingen and Pieter Post, depicting William II of Holland granting privileges in 1255 to the Spaarndam dijkgraaf and hoogheemraden, the organisation that would evolve into the Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland
1654 painting by Cesar van Everdingen and Pieter Post, depicting William II of Holland granting privileges in 1255 to the Spaarndam dijkgraaf and hoogheemraden, the organisation that would evolve into the Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland

This method of controlling water emerged as the unpredictable water was tamed and the land drained for agriculture. The first dikes and water control structures were built and maintained by those directly benefiting from them, mostly farmers. As the structures got more extensive and complex, councils were formed from people with a common interest in control of water levels of their land. The first water boards were formed in the 13th century. These often controlled only a small area, a single polder or dike.

As these boards became better organised, the counts of Holland began granting charters to the boards. They were also granted the right to make their own bylaws. The ever-present threat of loss of life and land required short lines of communication between authorities and residents who maintained the infrastructure. The threat of flooding in a heerlijkheid was best dealt with by local authorities, so water boards were originally chaired by the local nobility.

Local water boards were set up to maintain integrity of water defences around local polders, to maintain waterways inside polders and to control various water levels in and outside local polders. The mandate of these water boards (which remains largely unchanged) was maintenance of dikes, dunes and waterways (and roads too, in several municipalities), control of water level and quality of all surface water (including punishing polluters). The original water boards varied much in organisation, power and area they managed. The differences were often dictated by different circumstances, whether they had to defend a sea dike against a storm surge or keep water level in a polder within bounds. Hoogheemraadschappen were responsible for protecting the land against the sea and for regulating water levels of various canals and lakes into which water was pumped from polders and waterschappen.

Dikes were maintained by individuals who benefited from their existence, every farmer was designated a part of a dike to maintain, with a review every three years by the water board directors. The old rule was "Whom the water harms stops the water" (Dutch: Wie het water deert, die het water keert). This meant that those living at the dike had to pay and care for it. Those people could go bankrupt from having to repair a breached dike. Those living further inland often refused to pay for or assist upkeep of dikes, even though they were just as much affected by floods. This system led to haphazard maintenance and it is believed that many floods would be prevented or mitigated if dikes had been in better condition.[4]

Punishments meted out by water boards were fines for misdemeanors such as emptying waste in the nearest canal; however, according to various historical documents, the death penalty was used more than once for serious offenders who threatened dike safety or water quality.[5]

Later development

Heraldic shields of the Hoogheemraadschap of Delfland in 1645, the year that it bought this house for board meetings. The shields are on the façade of the Gemeenlandshuis Delft.
Heraldic shields of the Hoogheemraadschap of Delfland in 1645, the year that it bought this house for board meetings. The shields are on the façade of the Gemeenlandshuis Delft.

In the 17th century there were many of these independent local bodies levying their own taxes and administering justice. This early form of local government played a role in the development of a political system in the Netherlands that was decentralised and dependent on communal cooperation. Widespread experience with decentralized government was a factor in the formation of the Dutch Republic in the 16th and 17th centuries.[6]

The mandate of Rijkswaterstaat (English: Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management), established in 1798 under French rule, was to centralise water control in the Netherlands. Local water boards refused to give up their autonomy however, so Rijkswaterstaat ended up working alongside the local water boards. Today Rijkswaterstaat has responsibility for major water control structures and other infrastructure like motorways.

By 1850 there were about 3,500 water boards in the country.[7] In modern times water boards merged as they dealt with joint (and sometimes conflicting) interests. Mergers eventually reduced the number to 25 water boards in 2011.[8]

The tasks of water boards remain basically unchanged. Having a rich history dating back to the Middle Ages, they are the oldest governing bodies and the oldest democratic institutions in the Netherlands. Dutch water boards have their own coat of arms, a colourful reminder of their importance in Dutch history. The historic buildings that used to house the water boards are another legacy. Called gemeenlandshuis or waterschaphuis, these charming old buildings can be found at the heart of many Dutch towns.


Polder landscape at 't Beijersche, southeast of Gouda
Polder landscape at 't Beijersche, southeast of Gouda

Water boards act independently from national government to manage the continuing struggle against the water in the Netherlands. Water boards still levy their own taxes, but they no longer have power to penalize offenders. To control quality of surface water (canals, lakes, ponds and streams), water boards fulfill several tasks: policy making, planning and building projects, issuing permits (sewage discharge requires a permit) and treatment of sewage and by-products. The various municipalities within the geographic area covered by a water board are responsible for collecting sewage from households and industries, but water boards transport and treat the sewage.

A dike along the Nederrijn between Kesteren and Opheusden. This 1995 photo was taken when river levels were extremely high. Note the low-lying ground beside the dike on the right.
A dike along the Nederrijn between Kesteren and Opheusden. This 1995 photo was taken when river levels were extremely high. Note the low-lying ground beside the dike on the right.

In its territory a water board is responsible for:

  • management and maintenance of water barriers: dunes, dikes, quays and levees;
  • management and maintenance of waterways;
  • maintenance of a proper water level in polders and waterways;
  • maintenance of surface water quality through wastewater treatment.

Dutch water boards are not responsible for the water supply to the general public and are therefore not considered a utility.[9]

In addition to taxes raised by water boards, central government contributes to their finances by paying construction and maintenance costs of water barriers and main waterways. The costs of waste water treatment are financed by a water pollution levy, which is based on the polluter pays principle.


Water boards hold elections, levy taxes and function independently from other government bodies. Water board structures vary, but they each have an elected general administrative body, an executive board and a chair.


Most of the members of the general administrative body of the water boards (the hoofdingelanden) are elected democratically, although some stakeholders (e.g. agrarian interests) may have the power to appoint members. Members of the general administrative body are elected for a period of four years.

The constituencies of members of the general administrative body are the various categories of stakeholders: landholders, leaseholders, owners of buildings, companies and all residents. The nature of the interest and financial contribution are factors in determining how many representatives each category may have on the water board.


The general administrative body elects some of its own members to sit on the executive board, called the college van dijkgraaf en heemraden. Except for the chairperson (the dijkgraaf, see below) these executive board members, called heemraden or hoogheemraden in Dutch, traditionally represent five types of water users: the local population (residents), industry (factories and industrial buildings), municipalities (urban areas), farmers (agricultural land), and public parks.


Each water board is headed by a chair (dijkgraaf, literally: "dike count", but sometimes called "dike reeve" or "dike warden" in English), an ancient office that dates back to the medieval period. The chair is appointed by the government for a period of six years. The chair presides over the executive board and the general administrative body and has certain ceremonial duties as well. The chair of a water board is at the same level as a mayor in local government and a king's commissioner in provincial government.

List of water boards

The 21 water boards in the Netherlands in 2019
The 21 water boards in the Netherlands in 2019

Typically, a water board’s territory is made up of one or more polders or watersheds. The territory of a water board generally covers several municipalities and may even include areas in two or more provinces. As of 2018, there are 21 water boards in the Netherlands. [10]

  1. Waterschap Noorderzijlvest (Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe)
  2. Wetterskip Fryslân (Friesland and Groningen)
  3. Waterschap Hunze en Aa's (Groningen and Drenthe)
  4. Waterschap Drents Overijsselse Delta (Drenthe and Overijssel)
  5. Waterschap Vechtstromen (Drenthe and Overijssel)
  6. Waterschap Vallei en Veluwe (Utrecht and Gelderland)
  7. Waterschap Rijn en IJssel (Gelderland)
  8. Hoogheemraadschap De Stichtse Rijnlanden (Utrecht and South Holland)
  9. Hoogheemraadschap Amstel, Gooi en Vecht (North Holland and Utrecht)
  10. Hoogheemraadschap Hollands Noorderkwartier (North Holland)
  11. Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland (South Holland and North Holland)
  12. Hoogheemraadschap van Delfland (South Holland)
  13. Hoogheemraadschap van Schieland en de Krimpenerwaard (South Holland)
  14. Waterschap Rivierenland (South Holland, Gelderland and North Brabant)
  15. Waterschap Hollandse Delta (South Holland)
  16. Waterschap Scheldestromen (Zeeland)
  17. Waterschap Brabantse Delta (North Brabant)
  18. Waterschap De Dommel (North Brabant)
  19. Waterschap Aa en Maas (North Brabant)
  20. Waterschap Limburg (Limburg)
  21. Waterschap Zuiderzeeland (Flevoland)


Anyone who is aged 18 or over and is registered with a local authority in the Netherlands can vote in the Water Authority elections, which are held every four years on the same day as the provincial government elections. The last elections were held on March 20, 2019. Prior to the vote, the local council posts each voter a list of candidates, a ballot paper and details of their local polling stations.


Historical terms

Historically, the name hoogheemraadschap was used for a large area comprising a number of smaller waterschappen within its jurisdiction.[11] Hoogheemraadschap was also traditionally the word used for water boards located along the Rijn and the Vecht.[12]

The term waterschap refers to the jurisdiction or to the administrative body. This also applies to hoogheemraadschap. In Dutch, the plural of waterschap is waterschappen. The plural of hoogheemraadschap is hoogheemraadschappen. In present-day usage, the official term is waterschap. However, the word hoogheemraadschap is still used by some Dutch water boards for historical reasons or when several waterschappen are grouped together into a larger regional body.

Officially there is no difference between a hoogheemraadschap and a waterschap. The Water Board Act (Waterschapswet), the Dutch statute that governs regional water authorities, only uses the word waterschap.[13] A Dutch water board that still uses hoogheemraadschap in its name (e.g. the Hoogheemraadschap van Delfland) may have chosen to do so because hoogheemraadschap was part of the historical name. However, a waterschap that styles itself as a hoogheemraadschap no longer has its traditional structure with subordinate waterschappen. They have been merged into the hoogheemraadschap itself.[14] Some water boards chose the name hoogheemraadschap after a merger of a number of waterschappen into a larger one (e.g. Hoogheemraadschap De Stichtse Rijnlanden). When used in this sense, the word hoogheemraadschap refers to a large regional waterschap.

English translation

When referring to the administrative body, English translations of waterschap are "water board", "water control board", "district water board" or "regional water authority", the last word being recently adopted by the water boards as a preferred English translation on grounds that it is less ambiguous.[citation needed] The jurisdiction of a Dutch regional water authority is generally referred to as the "water board district" or "regional water authority district". These translations also apply to hoogheemraadschap, which is translated in the same way as waterschap.

The term "water board" or "regional water authority" may be confusing in the Dutch context, as water boards and regional water authorities in other countries are often responsible for water supply. A waterschap or hoogheemraadschap in the Netherlands is charged with the control and management of water as well as treatment of waste water, but not with water supply.

See also


  1. ^ "Correction wording flood risks for the Netherlands in IPCC report". PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Retrieved 7 October 2017.
  2. ^ Dutch Water Authorities
  3. ^ "European Union of Water Management Associations (EUWMA)". EUWMA. Retrieved 7 October 2017.
  4. ^ Bosker, F (2008). "Zeedijken in het noorden, Mythes en feiten over 2000 jaar kustbescherming", uitgeverij Noordboek, ISBN 978-90-330-0751-4
  5. ^ "Branding iron still in the possession of the Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland". Archived from the original on 10 July 2012.
  6. ^ Raadschelders, J.C.N.; Th.A.J. Toonen, eds. (1993). Waterschappen in Nederland: een bestuurskundige verkenning van de institutionele ontwikkeling (Water boards in the Netherlands: a management inquiry into the institutional development). Hilversum: Verloren b.v. ISBN 90-6550-365-X.
  7. ^ "Website for the Regional Water Authority of Salland". Archived from the original on 22 June 2011.
  8. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2 November 2012. Retrieved 28 February 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ "Website of Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland". Archived from the original on 6 May 2009.
  10. ^ "Zoek Waterschap". Retrieved 11 September 2018.
  11. ^ B. Dolfing, Vroegste ontwikkelingen in het Waterschap, in: J.C.N. Raadschelders and Th.A.J. Toonen (Eds.), Waterschappen in Nederland: een bestuurskundige verkenning van de institutionele ontwikkeling, Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum (1993), pp. 76 ff. (in Dutch)
  12. ^ What's in a name (in Dutch)
  13. ^ Waterschapswet (in Dutch). Accessed 2008-08-13
  14. ^ Hoogheemraadschap van Delfland (in Dutch) Accessed 2008-08-11

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