Types of institutions for collective action - Waterboards



A waterboard is an organisation responsible for water management in a certain territory. It is also used to demarcate that territory. Within the Netherlands there have been thousands of waterboards, until they merged into ever bigger entities in the twentieth century. As of 2010, only 26 waterboards remain, whereas thousands existed in the early modern period. Most of the remaining ones are large, some covering complete provinces (Friesland, Groningen). The early waterboards were mostly small, varying from a few hectares up to a few hundred hectares, but there were also large ones, covering a third of a province. Their tasks were as heterogeneous as their sizes. The major tasks were drainage and flood protection, irrigation being irrelevant in the Netherlands. Flood protection ranged from the maintenance of small wooden sluices to maintaining a very long and strong dike along the sea. Drainage tasks varied from keeping ditches clean in a polder to supervising hundreds of windmills and long drainage canals in a region. Naturally, the budgets of the waterboards varied widely as well.

Until the nineteenth century, waterboards in the Netherlands were neither private corporations nor public corporations, but they had elements of both. The landowners had a big say in the management of a waterboard, but they could not operate without consent of local or state officials. This led to a debate in the nineteenth century when the need was felt to classify the waterboards in a category. It was finally decided they were corporate bodies, forming a fourth layer of administration next to the communities, the provinces and the State. From the point of view of corporate collective action therefore, waterboards are most interesting in the medieval and early modern period. But even then, they were not all organised in the same way. Some depended very much on the local administration, which kept the documents and if needed, took the initiative to call together a representation of land owners to inspect the works. Other waterboards functioned permanently and consciously kept their own archives. This great diversity of waterboards is not specific to the Netherlands, but is found everywhere. What may be a bit special is the fact that Dutch waterboards show relatively frequent evolutions in tasks, size, budgets, or organisation. This in itself is probably explained by the changeability of the landscape, necessitating adaptations of existing arrangements.


Creative Commons Image; click for details


Detail of map of Holland in Atlas Major by Jan Blaeu, 1665,
showing the area around Noordwijk and Warmond



As there is no generally accepted classification of waterboards, we decided to classify them in a way most suited to the theme of the research programme: corporate collective action. This resulted in four types of local waterboards and a collective category of larger waterboards. More information on these subtypes can be found by clicking the connected link beneath:


Local waterboards 

> More information about Bedijkingen

> More information about Droogmakerijen

> More information about Polders

> More information about Waterkeringen calamiteuze waterschappen   

Larger waterboards 

> More information about Regional or supra-local waterboards



> Back to overview types of institutions