Dutch water management, a polder model

Dutch water management started around the Rhine river. This Rhineland is the birthplace of the first democratic institution in the Netherlands and of the authentic Dutch polder model.


Bulb fields, cheese, city canals, windmills and Delft blue porcelain. Typical Dutch things we see and talk about during the tours and events of Verita’s Visit. Most likely, without water control these would not have become the icons of the Netherlands they are today.

In this article we put the spotlight on Dutch water management. We’ll have a look at:


Where in Holland is the Rhineland?

The Rhine. Not a river you quickly associate with the Netherlands. Nowadays the Rhine river is canalised. It becomes one with the Waal river. The Rhineland, in Dutch Rijnland, is the area between the river's mouth in the North Sea and the border of the provinces Utrecht and South Holland. Historically, the area around the Rhine, especially the Rhineland, is of great importance in the organisation of the Dutch water management.  

Rijn canal city Leiden
Canalised - Old- Rhine river in Leiden

When did Dutch land reclamation start?

In the past, the Rhine was a wild river flowing into the North sea at Katwijk, a seaside resort near Leiden. Its river banks were high enough for the first tribes to settle and protect them against flooding. In the Middle Ages, more people wanted to live near the Rhine. At the same time the sea level was rising. That meant more land was needed. It was the start of the land reclamation around the river. The first steps towards Dutch water management. People worked together, building and maintaining dikes. Everything in order to reclaim land and prevent it from flooding. This was first done on a small scale, but then the Count of Holland took control.

Flood control?

The count ruled over an area which included parts of the Waal and Meuse river. In a war with Utrecht he conquered the Rijnland. The newly conquered area meant more income. He created contracts for homeseekers, allowing them to cultivate a piece of land. Everything went well until the Rhine river silted at the river mouth near Katwijk and the newly reclaimed land flooded. 

The count of Holland had an idea. He built a dam on the border between the province South Holland, his territory and the province Utrecht, territory of the bishop. Problem solved or so he thought.

The Utrecht people were furious. Now their area would flood. The count had to look for a new way to divert the river water. The idea was to guide the water to the northern lakes in Holland, but this would mean an overflow to other rivers in the north. So, he created a new dam. This time in the area of Haarlem.

local Dutch water authority
Count of Holland recognises water board officials with document, painting in Lakenhal museum, Leiden.

Who manages the water in the Netherlands?

In no time a group of angry men knocked on his door. For years this council of privileged men controlled the construction and maintenance of the water works. They felt the count had ignored them when making the decision to build a dam.

In 1255 the count made up for his mistake with an official document stating that in the future he would always consult the council. This document is now in the archive of the Rijnland water board. It’s precious to the water board Rijnland as it is the first time the term heemraden, the water board officials, is documented.

These heemraden formed the base of the Rijnland water board. There are now 21 water boards in the Netherlands. Every board is in charge of the Dutch water management on a local level. They work together with the Directorate General for Public Works and Water Management, in Dutch Rijkswaterstaat, municipalities and organisations such as drinking water companies. 

Dutch water authorities
Click this image to test your knowledge on the topography of water authorities in NL at topomania

What is a polder model?

The water board is seen as the oldest democratic institution in the Netherlands, a true polder model. Luckily, it has become more democratic than in the Middle Ages. Holland is not underwater, because we discuss every tiny detail, work together and resolve disputes. Every four years we elect a new water board to make sure our feet are dry. And, what comes with a government body is a tax. The water authority tax. There are multiple charges. First, there is a water system charge, to lower the risk of floodings and maintain waterworks and waterways. Then there is a water treatment charge, for the water quality and purification.

Did you know that water quality control is more than wastewater treatment? Water boards also take care of nature in and around the water. For example, the American crayfish is not seen as a delicacy here. It is an exotic invader which can disrupt the local ecosystem and influence the water quality. 

What's on the Dutch water management agenda?

World Water Day is celebrated on 22nd of March. In that same week all 21 water authorities come together to keep each other updated and talk about innovative Dutch water management. Climate change, a rising sea level, but also drought are high on the agenda.

Unfortunately many inhabitants of this man-made lowlands are not aware of the hard work done by the water managers on a local level. On the tours and events of Verita’s Visit I do my very best to show you the fantastic Dutch water works and waterways in the province South Holland.

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