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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Forced Solidarity: Maintenance of Coastal Defences Along the North Sea Coast in the Early Modern Period

Milja van Tielhof

Environment and History 21 (2015): 319-350. doi: 10.3197/096734015X14345369355746

For people living on soft soils near or below sea level in the pre-modern period, flood protection increasingly became a major challenge. This article analyses the organisation of flood protection along the southern shores of the North Sea, from the late Middle Ages to the eighteenth century. One of the main problems was that usually only those communities directly on the coast were charged with maintaining sea defences, while flooding increasingly affected a much wider hinterland. Attempts to spread the costs to include communities situated further from the shore came up against significant political and economic barriers. Nevertheless, in several places the responsibility for flood protection was successfully and permanently transferred to areas that included the hinterland. Very large water districts sometimes emerged, dramatically increasing the number of land users liable to pay for dike maintenance. The article identifies four conditions that were necessary to achieve these radical institutional changes.

KEYWORDS: Water management, flood protection, institutional change, North Sea coast

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