Our history

Rijkswaterstaat has been responsible for managing roads and waterways since 1798. The work we do has altered radically over the centuries.

This page provides an overview about the history of Rijkswaterstaat, how we developed throughout the years and important historical events.

18th century: establishment


Rijkswaterstaat’s origins lie in the period of French rule (1795-1814). At that time, responsibility for managing the water was still fragmented and divided among central government, the provinces, the water boards and the local authorities. But the condition of the riverbeds was poor and the dykes were weak, leading to disastrous flooding. The enormous damage caused demanded a national response.

Bureau voor den Waterstaat

In 1798, a national organisation known as the Bureau voor den Waterstaat was established. Its name was changed to Rijkswaterstaat in 1848, whose principal tasks are to construct, manage and maintain rivers, canals, flood defences and polders.

Rijkswaterstaat was established in 1798 and was originally called the Bureau voor den Waterstaat

19th century: growth and additional responsibilities


At the beginning of the 19th century, Rijkswaterstaat flourished under King William I of the Netherlands (1815-1840). Nicknamed the 'King-Merchant', William I was committed to the Dutch industry and (international) trade. On his initiative, Rijkswaterstaat dug almost 500 kilometres of new canals. The King also invested in new polders and improvements to existing waterways.

Expansion of tasks


Opening of the first Dutch railway line

With the arrival of the train and car in the 19th century, the tasks of Rijkswaterstaat were accumulating. Rijkswaterstaat was responsible for developing the rail network and also took responsibility for building and maintaining bridges and roads alongside the water. It was a logical step since Rijkswaterstaat was already responsible for the waterways spanned by the bridges and the dykes along which many of the roads were going to be built.

King William I of the Netherlands

Scientific developments

Since 1920, scientific advances have influenced the day-to-day work of Rijkswaterstaat. Thanks to new measuring techniques and better materials such as reinforced and prestressed concrete, it became possible to build even larger structures. We also started to learn more about how to address complex issues such as tidal movements and river currents.

Thanks to scientific advances, Rijkswaterstaat learned how to address complex issues such as tidal movements and river currents

Economic crisis

The 1930s brought a global economic crisis, but it did not halt the modernisation of technology and infrastructure, with developments such as the emergence of aviation, radio and telephone and the construction of numerous roads and canals during that period. The government also invested in job creation programmes involving major infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the Twente Canal, the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal and the Afsluitdijk.

1940 - 1970: World War II and reconstruction

The Second World War

The German invasion in 1940 led to the destruction of many bridges and overpasses. Although Rijkswaterstaat rebuilt a number of works in the early years of the occupation, the water and road network was again badly damaged during the liberation of the country.

We laid a lot of new asphalt between 1945 and 1965, expanding the main road network from 100 to 600 kilometres


After the war, Rijkswaterstaat performed a lot of work on the national road network. We laid a lot of new asphalt between 1945 and 1965, expanding the main road network from 100 to 600 kilometres. 

We also widened and connected existing roads and replaced many junctions with tunnels, overpasses and fly-overs. Rijkswaterstaat also completed a great many water-related projects, for example repairing the dykes at Walcheren that had been breached by the allies in 1944.

Late 20th century: change and cooperation

Cooperation with the market

Since the 1970s, the way in which Rijkswaterstaat performs its tasks has changed. We no longer dictate what happens in relation to infrastructure, but are increasingly opening up to cooperation. Rijkswaterstaat has made the transition from builder to steward and from maker to manager. Rijkswaterstaat still directs a project such as the construction or maintenance of a road or a overpass, but the execution is left to the market whenever possible.

Cooperation with the public

In addition to the market, Rijkswaterstaat also increasingly involves the users of roads and waterways in its planning and decision making. Consulting with citizens and lobby groups and weighing their interests in formulating policies and making decisions is the new norm.