Monday, September 21, 2015

Institutions for water control

from  Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland

Following up on yesterday's post on bonds issued by early modern Dutch water agencies, an earlier post by Rechtsgeschiedenis Blog had the following interesting things to say on water institutions and law:
The peculiar legal nature of Dutch institutions for water control in the broadest sense of the word is their independent origin and – at least to a considerable extent – still independent status. A Dutch waterschap or hoogheemraadschap is not a municipal, provincial or national institution. Some of the waterschappen occupied themselves only with a part of a region, but since a major reorganization in the nineties of the past century only a small number of large water control boards exist, six hoogheemraadschappen and some twenty waterschappen.... A waterschap had and has its own governing body, organizes its own elections for representatives and its board, collects itself special annual taxes, creates its own regulations (keuren), including penalties to be inflicted. In history some waterschappen could even threaten to impose the death penalty for major infractions against its bylaws, for example not complying to orders to repair dikes or not helping against the imminent threat of a flood.
Leiden is situated on a minor branch of the Rijn, the Leidse Rijn. This river gives its name to the hoogheemraadschap Rijnland.... Rijnland has been often the subject of studies and source editions. The oldest surviving registers have been published for the Society for the Study of Old Dutch Law, De oudste bestuursregisters van het hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland (1444-1520). Regesten van de handelingen van dijkgraaf en hoogheemraden, J.H.M. Sloof (ed.) (Leiden 1999). A section of the Rijnland website is devoted to its heritage, with an image database in which you can find also old documents, artefacts, online finding aids and a treasure gallery. One can find further materials for the history of this heemraadschap at the Regionaal Archief Leiden. This archival centre, too, has an online searchable image database. You will find for example building construction drawings submitted to the hoogheemraadschap.
In my opinion creating or having independent institutions for water control is not only a phenomenon for institutional historians but a subject worth of further investigation. This century will witness the growing importance of natural resources, will perhaps even see battles and wars for water, and you are invited to contemplate the example of a region with in this respect a special balance of powers.
I would add that independent institutions for water control is not a uniquely Dutch phenomenon, but one found in many cultures and legal systems - think for instance of irrigation districts, user-owned corporations, or acequias. Though the issue of individual property rights in water gets a lot of attention, in practice water is usually managed and allocated through these collective institutions.


  1. Dear David, thanks for noting my blog post about the Dutch perpetual bond. You are quite right to correct my statements, I should have been more careful on this point. I took the liberty of recommending your blog to my readers, it is really interesting to look at the post of your team!

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