The Politics of Wet System Building: Balancing Interests in Dutch Water Management from the Middle Ages to the Present
By Cornelis Disco and Erik van der Vleuten
Knowledge, Technology and Policy, Vol.14:4 (2002)
Introduction: The Netherlands is a country physically structured by water. In addition to many minor rivers and canals, three large European rivers–the Meuse, the Scheldt and the Rhine–meander their way through the country towards the North Sea. A flat topography mostly at or below sea level is combined with a relatively high population density and wealth. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Netherlands have long been prominent in the development of water-related technologies, ranging from massively applied land reclamation (starting in the Middle Ages) and the adaptation of windmill technology for drainage (since the 15th century) to the development of the world’s largest seaport in Rotterdam and several large scale damming projects (the Zuiderzee; the Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt estuaries) in the 20th century.
In this paper, however, we will not focus on isolated feats in the international history of technology. What makes the history of Dutch water management truly interesting is the complex adjudication of very different and potentially conflicting social interests in water flows. For in this intensively cultivated country, the same bodies of water might be subject to flood protection measures, land reclamation, inland navigation, fresh water supply for agriculture, industry and cities, waste water disposal, recreation, fishing and even military defense (the last”water defense line”was constructed during the Cold War).