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System Building from Below: Institutional Change in Dutch Water Control Systems

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 43, Number 3, July 2002
pp. 521-548 | 10.1353/tech.2002.0120

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Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 521-548


The Netherlands faces the North Sea to the north and to the west, and three major rivers—the Rhine, the Maas, and the Schelde—have their outlets in the country. The ability of its inhabitants to control the water flows of this sea and these rivers has for many centuries been decisive for the safety and prosperity of the country. In the Middle Ages, Dutch peasants were able to drain peat bogs and transform them into fertile farmlands. The drainage canals they employed in this task doubled as a transportation network and facilitated the development of commerce and rapid urbanization. This prepared the ground for the golden age of the seventeenth century, when Amsterdam was the commercial and cultural center of the world and per capita income was higher in the Netherlands then anywhere else. Today the Rotterdam harbor is one of the biggest in the world, and commerce, transportation, and agriculture are major sectors of a Dutch economy still dependent on the careful control of flowing water. But water has not only been a blessing to the Dutch. At times they have lost control over it, and the sea or the rivers have broken through the dikes. Devastating floods are traumatic events in the history of the country, and they remain a threat today.

The system of water control is omnipresent in the Netherlands today. The country is crisscrossed by a dense network of rivers, canals, and ditches, in which water flows are controlled by thousands of gates, sluices, and pumps. Along the coasts and the major rivers, natural sand dunes and man-made dikes protect the land from floods. Thousands of people operate and maintain all these structures, and a complex institutional framework specifies the responsibilities of all the people and organizations involved. This system has many similarities to the large technical systems that have attracted attention from historians of technology in the past two decades. It can be regarded as a sociotechnical system that includes both natural components and man-made artifacts. This interlacing of artifacts with nature gives it a special character and has profoundly influenced its historical development.

The Netherlands is largely a delta landscape, and as such it is ecologically very fragile. The efforts of the Dutch over the centuries to alter water flows have therefore had not only intended but also unintended effects on the landscape. When peasants started digging drainage ditches and canals in the Middle Ages, their purpose was to make farmlands out of peat bogs, and they succeeded. But as the water level fell, the ground began to sink, and this led to a dynamic interplay between man and nature over the centuries. To cope with the ecological changes, the Dutch developed new kinds of technical devices and structures, which in turn had additional unintended consequences, and so on. Many of these devices were large, and required the cooperation of many people to build. Such collective action in turn depended on institutions that could define a division of tasks and responsibilities and set sanctions for misconduct.

This institutional part of the Dutch water control system is the focus of this article. There are numerous historical examples of water control systems built and managed by large-scale, centralized hierarchies, in which coordination was imposed from above. The Netherlands is different. Here systems of water control were built and managed on local and regional levels. How did the Dutch organize large scale undertakings without coercion from above? What kinds of rules and organizations emerged to coordinate their efforts, and how and why have these changed over time? How can we relate these changes to ecological, economic, political, and technological developments? These are key questions in this article, which analyzes institutional change in Dutch systems of water control over a long period of time, from the twelfth century to the mid-seventeenth century. A special emphasis is put on the introduction and diffusion of the water-lifting windmill, as this technology improved control of water flows significantly and was associated with profound institutional changes. There is also a certain geographical focus on the county of Holland (in the western part of the Netherlands...

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