Symposium report: Urban Past, Urban Future? Sustainable Drinking Water in Dutch Cities, 1500-1900

On Thursday the 17th of March 2022, the project team held its first symposium, hosted as a special event at the Environmental Humanities Center. In a hybrid format, with more than 30 attendants combined in person and on Zoom, several team members presented preliminary results.

The project team at the symposium. From left to right: Milja van Tielhof, Bob Pierik, Marit Steman, Dániel Moerman, Bart Levering, and Petra van Dam. (Photo: Medha Guru)

Petra van Dam introduced the project, explaining the resilience of a city to drought as an important subject. She explained that the project focuses on the history of urban fresh water, rather than just drinking water. People used fresh water for domestic purposes as well and had multiple water sources; groundwater was accessed through wells and pumps, rainwater was harvested from roofs into cisterns. She then raised the questions that the symposium would address: Who had access to which water? In particular, how did poor people have access to good water sources like wells in the eastern Netherlands and cisterns in the western Netherlands? How was water harvested, stored, and distributed? What happened in times of drought?

The documentary Our drinking water – Is the world drying up? connects very well to the message of the symposium that the history of drinking water and in particular also the micro-infrastructures of the past inspire politicians, engineers, and other policy makers to think about water in the future and how to preserve our precious underground water reserves. The documentary covers ancient underground galleries in Malta and Inca technologies and canals, both for harvesting rain- and river-water and feeding underground aquifers. The historical part starts at 26:46.

The first presentation of the symposium by Milja van Tielhof took an Amsterdam orphanage as a case study for households’ strategies of coping with water scarcity between 1666 and 1790. She discussed which kind of water was used for what purposes, and the strategies the orphanage used in times of drought. After a lively discussion with questions from both the in-person and online participants and a short interval, Bart Levering presented on the archaeological side of the project. He explained what types of micro-water-infrastructure are found in the early-modern cities of Hoorn, Enkhuizen, and Medemblik. The symposium was closed by Dániel Moerman, who told the history of well-communities in Deventer between 1500 and 1850. Focusing on the socio-political aspects, he explained how risk-mitigating strategies to drought were developed over time.

You can find the PowerPoint of the symposium here:

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