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Celine Zahno | The Excitement of Waterboards

Céline Zahno,
3 maart 2023 - 09:01

In March, both Dutch and international residents of the Netherlands can vote for their local water boards. While this sounds like a mere technical task initially, there is a lot at stake. Especially for international students it is a chance to be involved in local politics, Dutch national identity, and the future of a country threatened by climate change.

Water boards are much more exciting than they sound. If you are now wondering why I am trying to promote the perks of torture tools: that is not what I am talking about. 


The Dutch water boards are responsible for water management. That includes flooding protection, managing water levels, water availability for farmers and ensuring sufficient water quality. Every four years elections are held, where all residents of the Netherlands can vote for the water boards in their area.

To live in Amsterdam, but to observe national politics only from the outside must feel like fishing in a pond while your Dutch friends sail out into the wide sea

You, the international reader, will be especially invested in this. If you are devastated about not being eligible to vote in the Dutch provincial elections on March 15th, my condolences. To live in Amsterdam, but to observe national politics only from the outside must feel like fishing in a pond while your Dutch friends sail out into the wide sea. Here is my suggested remedy: you turn up at the polls on the exact same day to vote in the water management elections.


I am going to generously forego your initial objection that you would rather participate in “real politics”. While water management sounds like a technical task, it is subject to much political debate. Different parties take different stances on issues such as sustainability measures, taxation of those with low income and recreational use of water bodies. Another reason to care: you are actually paying for the Dutch water boards. All residents of Amsterdam, whether Dutch or international, pay a tax to the water authorities.


Historically, water boards have been existential to the Netherlands. With much of the country below sea levels, the Dutch started building dikes hundreds of years ago to drain land for agriculture. This effort required a cooperative attitude which translated into politics: water boards emerged as one of the oldest democratic institutions of the country. The fight against water was at the core of how the country perceived itself. The idea that the Dutch had dug up their country from the sea became popular as a symbol of national achievements. How deeply embedded water still is in Dutch national identity has been shown during Covid. While shopping was only allowed by appointment, swimming lessons for children were still taking place.


The threat of climate change pulls many eyes to the Netherlands and makes these elections matter more. The Dutch are global leaders in water management and are advising other countries on how to deal with rising water levels. It is not merely the engineering that receives attention but also the way that environmental resilience is embedded into the social fabric. Whole cities and neighborhoods are adapted for prevention – this shows in new construction projects. For example, a new underground bicycle parking in Zwolle can also be used as water storage in extreme weather situations, to prevent water from flowing into houses in the surrounding area. The way that society is involved in decisions on dealing with the future of water is exemplary of the Dutch way.


So, the 15th of March will nevertheless be an exciting day for you! Even though the sea of national politics remains inaccessible for you, the little pond you are fishing in is of more importance than you may have thought.


Céline Zahno is a Political Science student at the UvA. She is from Switzerland. 


You can take the test which party to vote for here