Friday, 30 January 2015

Historic water research in the Netherlands

Yesterday I participated in an event organized by the Vereniging voor Waterstaatsgeschiedenis (association of historic water research). Their yearly ‘research symposium’ highlighted and gave a very efficient overview of the type of research, and themes, that is currently taking place in the field of historic water research in the Netherlands. Very useful in relation to science and technology studies in which a historical perspective is often emphasized.

The relation between disasters/water management and religion captured several research projects that are being carried out in different historic time frames: from religious explanations of disasters (later partly replaced by scientific explanations) to religious motives to support disaster victims with money or goods.

Another group of projects deals with issues that can now be expressed by the term ‘governance’: the involvement of various actors, including a formalizing state and moves to adopt a more centralistic approach to dealing water. It became clear that investing in projects, for example in impoldering (large) lakes in Holland was a very risky business; and that when private investors (including the Church!) did not take action, the state progressively came into the picture to fund or coordinate hydraulic works. Especially when ‘water safety issues’ were felt important enough. Open lakes (and erosion of shores, storms etc) presented water risks.

A specific issue that was heavily debated were river ice floes. In the 17-19th centuries this was a common problem in the river, which frequently caused dike overtopping. It was argued that the various de-poldering projects (spreading out the water over larger areas) was dangerous because shallow water freezes quicker. Of course counter arguments were voiced:  those de-poldered areas will only receive water at certain water levels, during which water flows are very high. In addition, I learned that  Rijkswaterstaat even has developed a protocol to deal with ice in the rivers. What was that thing with climate change again...

Ijsberg bij Ochten 1789
Ice encroaching near Ochten (source:

But at the same time… these guys still talk about ‘dia’s’ instead of slides J

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