Dutch Water Democracy

By Felipe van de Kerkhof

Water flows as a common theme throughout the history of The Netherlands – from the fields “reclaimed” from the water (polders) to the oceans conquered by the world’s first multinational: the Dutch East India company. Even the name Nederlands (‘low countries’), is derived from the country’s position relative to the water. Without water, The Netherlands as we know it today would not exist. The battle with water has brought the county economic prosperity, formed the stuff of legends, and inspired the American story of Hans Brinker, the boy who “put his finger in the dike”.

The Dutch make sure everyone does their part!

The Dutch make sure everyone does their part!

Quite impressive, but did you also know that the battle against water inspired one of the earliest systems of democracy in Europe? (Don’t worry Greece, we’re not taking this from you!)

To fight the water from drowning the people and destroying arable lands, the Dutch came together regionally to construct dikes (dijken) as early as the 12th century. Everyone had to contribute their fair share in money and work to the common defenses of their land. They would decide on a plan of action in meetings – similar to town hall meetings held today. Today, 24 waterschappen deal with ‘everything water related’ according to local needs. Although waterschappen are important, elections to their governing council are not popular, which is why the public is allowed to vote by post in their elections (de waterschapsverkiezing) every four years.

The Delfland water authority (Hoogheemraadschap van Delfland) manages water in The Hague (and neighbouring Zoetermeer and Wassenaar). Besides maintaining dikes and dams, the waterschap protects surface water quality by cleaning wastewater and limiting pollutant runoff.

The Dutch have known since the age of knights that cooperation the best defense against a common enemy, and the same holds for improving water quality awareness: we need your support and input!

If you live in The Hague, then please fill in our survey on water quality (available in English, Dutch, Turkish, Arabic and Spanish).