Debates - Waterboards

To what extent did waterboards contribute to a sustainable management of natural resources ?


One of the issues in the historiography on waterboards is the effect of their management on landscape deterioration. Although the Dutch are widely known for their expertise in creating new land and protect their land from the sea, history shows that losing land has been as common as gaining land (Van Dam and Van Tielhof, 2006; Van Dam, 2002; for an overview of new land creations after the Middle Ages see: Van der Ham, 2009). This was obviously caused to no small extent by the geographical conditions. About half of the land was (and still is) not only near or below sea level, but also soft and vulnerable. It takes a great deal of effort to protect it from floods or from steady erosion. Given these circumstances, the sustainability of the landscape depended to a large extent on effective water management. Two examples of land loss and deterioration both in the Middle Ages and early modern period are worth considering more closely: the consequences of peat winning in Holland and Utrecht, and the abandonment of lands in the estuaries of Maas and Scheldt in Zeeland, North Brabant and South Holland.

Did the waterboards have a positive or a negative influence on the deterioration of large parts of land due to peat winning? In the Middle Ages much of the low-lying part of the country was covered with peat soils. Peat could be used as a fuel, and as the cities grew larger and the fuel prices rose, more and more of the peat was removed. The peat winners left behind wet, worthless plots of land or even small lakes. Whole villages disappeared into the water (Van 't Riet, 2005; 2004). In the course of the early modern period water began to dominate the landscape in the provinces Holland and Utrecht. Does this mean that the waterboards failed? And if so, did they fail because they did not have the means to counter the strong economic forces dictating that fuel which is easily available nearby, simply had to be won? Or did they fail because members of the waterboards had personal interests in peat winning or could be bribed? Critical as well as more positive interpretations are possible (see the discussions in Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden 123/1 (2008) especially Prak, 83; Soens, 97; Van Dam and Van Tielhof, 106-8. Also:  Van Tielhof, 2007, 90-3).

Along the mouths of the rivers Maas and Scheldt land eroded and agricultural lands finally disappeared and were substituted by the Biesbosch and other watery landscapes. Destructive activities like salt winning and peat winning played a role here too, rendering the landscape extremely vulnerable for the eroding forces of the sea. Damage control generally failed, probably because it was not considered very important to protect these lands. What was the role of the waterboards in this? In the Flemish coastal plain, where comparable land loss occurred, deficiencies of water management were explained by social-economic and political developments. The abandonment of lands becomes perfectly understandable when studying property relations and the background of the people governing the waterboards (Soens, 2006; 2009).



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