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Regional dike boards sign peace treaty after 800 years

Conflict over lock in Rhine river

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

BODEGRAVEN, the Netherlands - A conflict which had put lords of two neighbouring counties at odds for more than 800 years, recently ended at a signing ceremony involving two inland water and dike boards. County borders, rulers, regional governments and alliances, and the course of the waterways all have changed since the feuding started eight centuries ago. The controversy flared up occasionally.

The year is 1162 when Holland’s Count Floris III he just had wed the sister of the King of Scotland took a drastic measure in trying to prevent continued flooding of his low lying county at the mouth of the Rhine river. In those days, the river - now named Oude Rijn - ran further north of its current course and reached the North Sea near Leiden. The coastline and the landscape was less secure and reclaimed, while downstream flooding from the Rhine then was a greater hazard.

At Floris’ command a dam was built in the river then called ‘Svade’ near what is now the town of Alphen, a point at the provincial border between Holland and Utrecht. At the dam, people built their homes or set up shop, creating a new village called the ‘Svade Dam,’ a conglomeration which eventually became known as Zwammerdam.

While people west of the dam enjoyed a break from the dangers of the swollen river, those living to the east were inundated when the water accumulated and had no place else to go. This was of little concern to Floris III, who perhaps used the dam and its dire consequences to pester his neighbour, the Bishop of Utrecht.


The conflict between the two rulers often escalated, forcing the bishop to complain to overlord, Frederik Barbarossa, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The emperor banned all damming of the Rhine. The edict meant that the Svade Dam was to be demolished again, which happened in 1165.

The flooding problem also was addressed. The emperor ordered that the Lords of Woerden, neighbours of Zwammerdam, should build dikes and divert surplus Rhine water northwards. Through waterways and the abundance of lakes, the floodwater eventually reached Spaarndam, another site built at a dam in a river, this one the Spaarne river near Haarlem.

Since the times of Floris and Barbarossa, controversy remained however about dike maintenance, about measures against impending floods, and about who would shoulder the cost of flooding. At issue over the centuries as well was the question of who controlled the flow of water.

Rules for surplusses

The agreement reached now involves two major regional inland water and dike boards. The terms cover such issues as the delivery of water from one jurisdiction the easternmost to the other. During periods with a surplus of water, the lock at Bodegraven takes in the excess water managed by the Utrecht Rhinelands board, and the (western) Rhinelands boards looks after draining this into the North Sea at Katwijk. The Utrecht board agreed to pay the cost. The 2004 agreement also makes the provision that the new situation could be reversed in times of extreme drought in the Utrecht area.

The regional inland water and polder/dike boards are the authorities managing surface water, diking and maintenance, and water levels in their jurisdiction. In South Holland and Utrecht, they in Dutch called ‘hoogheemraadschappen’ oversee a number of smaller units called ‘waterschappen.’