Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Waterschappen

Posted by butalidnl on 18 March 2015

Today, 18 March 2015, is the election day for Netherlands’ ‘Waterschappen’ (Water Authorities). Waterschappen are elected bodies that administer water works in a given area of the country. The Netherlands is divided into 24 waterschappen (the country also has 16 provinces). The boundaries of the waterschappen are based on water drainage areas; they often cross provincial lines.

It seems that only the Netherlands and Belgium have elected waterschappen, which demonstrates the importance these countries give to water management. Waterschappen are the Netherlands’ oldest democratic institution; the first waterschap was formed in Utrecht in the year 1122. Waterschappen manage the many dikes, polders (reclaimed areas), canals, locks and other flood control infrastructure; as well as water purification and distribution, and some aspects of water transportation. Through the centuries, they have been good in fulfilling their tasks.

Historically, the Dutch had a lot more waterschappen than today. As late as 1850. there were 3500 of them. This is because they were formed to manage relatively small areas e.g. polders (reclaimed areas) where water had to be managed closely, at least in the past. Over the years, the waterschappen merged with each other, eventually resulting in the 24 waterschappen today.

During the 1500s, the King Philip II (of Spain) moved to abolish the waterschappen and centralize administration. The Dutch were horrified, fearing that their dikes etc will not be maintained properly, and they will fall victims of floods. This was a contributing factor in the Dutch revolt , which eventually led to their independence from Spain.

There are frequent discussions over the continued relevance of waterschappen. Every now and then, political parties would propose to abolish them. But, so far, none of these proposals have succeeded. This is probably because waterschappen continue to be relevant. Global warming has only increased threats like sea-level rise and floods.
Besides, it does not make sense to ‘fix’ something that has functioned so well through the centuries.

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