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Technology and Culture 43.3 (2002) 465-472

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Learning from the Dutch
Technology, Management, and Water Resources Development

Martin Reuss

The eternal challenge of the sea dominates Dutch history, and the response to that challenge tells us much about human capability to manipulate an adverse environment. In a country facing periodic inundation and catastrophic floods, drainage and reclamation provided the keys to survival and economic development. Here, as elsewhere, water resources technology was, and is, designed to regulate a natural resource, not to materially transform it. This technology includes dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, canals, levees and dikes, irrigation systems, sewers, tanks, pumps, water pipes, jetties and breakwaters, bank revetment, and locks. Turbines and waterwheels may be considered ancillary technologies in that they move beyond controlling water to converting its kinetic energy into usable power. The technology has not changed much over the years. Neither have the management problems. Those familiar with current water problems who read the articles in this issue will easily recognize the enduring challenges that it presents. In matters dealing with water, Dutch history is the history of technology presented as a morality play—with lessons for us all.

The authors in this special issue of Technology and Culture discuss the technology, but they appropriately place it in a political and institutional setting. In fact, as several of them show, technological and institutional developments simply cannot be separated. Both technology and politics build institutions, and both institutions and politics may lead to new technology. The creation of water boards resulted from the desire both to use technology more effectively and to resolve conflicts over water management and use. The process is illustrated perfectly in William TeBrake's and Arne Kaijser's articles. TeBrake shows how thirteenth-century Dutch communities [End Page 465] banded together to form the first water boards to oversee drainage and flood control activities. At that time, peasants regulated water depth within the polders—parcels of land confined within low dikes—through simple sluices. The method was not always very effective. However, beginning no later than the early fifteenth century, windmill pumps allowed more exact regulation of water levels, and their pumping capacity more or less defined the size of the polder. Residents established polder boards to set and enforce rules, and the term "polder" referred to both physical entities and political institutions. Windmills remade the Dutch landscape, much as hedgerows remade the English countryside after passage of the Enclosure Acts in the eighteenth century. Both landscapes are artificial, but the Dutch landscape more directly resulted from technological application; so did Dutch political institutions, as Arne Kaijser argues in his article. In fact, the lack of a strong central government may have actually stimulated the development of water systems under the direction of polders and regional water boards. 1

Still, the introduction of a whole new technology, such as the windmill, is not necessary for significant social and political changes. Petra J. E. M. van Dam analyzes the introduction of iron hinges, mitered gates, and bricks and stones for sluices in the Netherlands. These innovations made for more durable sluices, increased drainage capacity, and enhanced protection against sea surge. At the same time, they presented engineers with the new problem of building heavy sluices in the soft clay and peat soils that covered much of the country. As always, technological innovations brought new challenges.

The marriage of institution and technology naturally leads to questions of water management—both of technology and people—and here too the authors are instructive. One need not believe in "hydraulic empires" to recognize that conflicting political desires inform the development and administration of water systems. A basic question is whether the conflicts will be resolved locally, regionally, or nationally. The Netherlands had thirty-five hundred boards by 1850. Then came a period of consolidation. Mergers reduced the number of boards, and a disastrous flood in 1953 lent urgency to the process of consolidation. By the year 2000, only fifty-seven water boards remained, and the number is still going down. However, some of the remaining water boards can...