Debates - Waterboards

What is the relationship between the Dutch history in water management and the present-day ‘poldermodel’?


The poldermodel in the sense of a distinct political culture has often been presented as characteristic of Dutch history and society. While a concise definition is difficult to provide, the poldermodel is associated with an abundance of meetings, endless discussions about differing points of view, respect for everyone’s opinion, participation of all parties involved, harmony instead of conflict and an exceptionally great wish to base decisions on consensus instead of on power relations. It has been argued that this kind of political culture has been advantageous for the economic development of the Netherlands throughout the ages (Van Zanden, 2002). If, and to what extent, this culture has really been a persistent trait of Dutch history is a matter of debate. Historians of Leiden University did an initial search for traces of the poldermodel in different fields of society, but with varying success (Bos, Ebben, and Te Velde, 2007).

The poldermodel is relevant when studying corporate collective action as the popular understanding is that this culture emerged in the Netherlands within the waterboards. It would have been the result of the pressing need to cooperate in order to master the wet soils with which the country had to cope. What other way could feet be kept dry besides involving everyone in water management and respecting the interests of all? Drainage systems needed constant and careful maintenance are were easy to undermine by groups or even individuals who perceived their own interests as different. Although it seems logical at first sight, the historiography on water management reveals much conflict and a lack of harmony (Aten, 1995; Van Dam, 1998; Fransen, 2010) Furthermore, studies on polder boards show that big and small landowners did not have the same chances to be elected in the boards, suggesting that richer people had a bigger say.  The local elite often seem to have dominated the actual management decisions (Zeischka, 2008).

In reality, very little is known about the daily practices and political culture within the waterboards in medieval and early modern times. Only the medieval Flemish waterboards and one Dutch polder have been analysed from the particular point of view of the poldermodel (Soens, 2006; 2001; Nobel, 2007). In a recent article Van Tielhof elaborated on this and other recent literature and formulated directions for future research. This involves turning away from the rather vague term poldermodel and formulating concrete research questions like: who had the right to be elected as member of a waterboard? How often were meetings held? Who had the right to be present at meetings and to vote? Did every landowner have the right to see the accounts and thus find out how his money was spent? She finally suggested that the extent to which all groups involved had a say in water management depended on many variables, including social-economic relations and (in)equality. The wet and low-lying soils as such did not necessarily lead to the intensive participation of large and small landowners and other stakeholders. The polders in the central part of the province of Holland, nowadays the Randstad and its ‘green heart’ (Groene Hart), seem to have been the best breeding grounds for management structures resembling the poldermodel (Van Tielhof, 2009b).



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