Blue Paper #3: Valuing water related cultural heritage

Henk van Schaik & Sir Diederik Six 

For thousands of years, people have been managing water resources: to provide water for domestic use, agriculture and nature, for transportation of goods, to generate power, and to protect societies against the perils of floods. Yet, it seems that contemporary water managers insufficiently recognize the values of these thousands of years’ worth of experience. Especially when engaging with future water management challenges, they hardly consider historical knowledge and memory to be a serious resource. For some years now, Henk van Schaik (Vice President of ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Water and Heritage) and Sir Diederik Six (Honorary Vice President of the ISC) are making a case to re-enter historical water values, tangible and intangible, into present day debates and policies. In this blog, they recount the beginning of the Water and Heritage initiative of ICOMOS Netherlands, outlines the logical framework for the thematic scope for water and heritage, and present the objectives for the interdisciplinary dialogue “Valuing water related cultural heritage” to be held on 4 and 5 October 2021.

In 2012, ICOMOS Netherlands started its Water and Heritage Initiative with the aim to bridge the disciplinary and institutional divides between the separate ‘worlds’ of cultural heritage and water management. In 2015, the initiative published its first book titled Water & Heritage: material, conceptual and spiritual connections (Willems, W. and Schaik, H. van eds, 2015). In her foreword, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO wrote:

 “As a basic element of life, our relationship with water is complex, entailing material and spiritual dimensions, and embodied in heritage that is both tangible and intangible. This relationship has always been a source of inspiration and a wellspring for innovation and creativity, leading us to think not only of the present but also the future and the security of future generations.”

The scope of the Water and Heritage initiative is summarized in the title and subtitle of this book. The title ‘Water & Heritage’ expresses our view that water related cultural heritage can contribute to the resolution of contemporary and future water management challenges. The subtitle of the book, ‘material, conceptual and spiritual connections’, stands for the importance of not only the material, conceptual and spiritual dimensions of water related heritage, but also for the connections between these three. Indeed, we consider that the connections between the material, the conceptual and the spiritual in water management are not only complementary but also lead to incremental values, and to the wholeness of the three when connected. The title and the subtitle of the book represent two axes as shown in the Framework for Water and Heritage in Figure 1.


Fig. 1: Framework for Water and Heritage, to be filled in over the coming months. Added are the two examples of the Blue Papers that were published to date (May 25th, 2021). Dutch Water Stories & Futureproof Waterways.

The Water and Heritage initiative emphasizes the significance and value of water related cultural heritage as an important addition to both the local and the international water dialogue. The aim of the initiative has been confirmed by the United Nations Water (UN-Water) theme for 2021, which is ‘Valuing Water’. On this theme, the World Water Assessment Programme of UN-Water published the World Water Development Report titled ‘Valuing Water’ on World Water Day (March 21, 2021). This WWDR Report assesses how water is valued across different sectors and identifies how this valuation process can be improved, with a view to what water is worth to our societies. The WWDR report mentions that water related cultural heritage carries values for water management, but has not specified these values for contemporary industrial societies, referring only to spiritual values in traditional societies.

Dialogue ‘Valuing water related cultural heritage”

On the 5th of October 2021, ICOMOS NL and the TUDELFT will organize a dialogue between water professionals and heritage experts on the values of water that will be filled in over the coming months in the Framework of Figure 1, and further elaborate on it. The objective of this dialogue is to have the values of water related cultural heritage recognized and included in the Conceptual Framework for Making Better Decisions Impacting WaterValuing Water, that has been adopted by the UN system and that was developed with the support of the Dutch Government.  

The experts and scientists participating in this dialogue will define the ‘values’ of water related cultural heritage from their disciplinary background for present and future water management challenges. The dialogue will be preceded by the posting of blogs by the participants on this website, the so-called “blue papers”, written by the dialogue participants describing the values including economic, cultural, spiritual, emotional, aesthetic and environmental values that can be found in water related cultural heritage relevant for water management challenges.

The conference will consider examples of integrative methods to understand and integrate cultural values i.e. the Environmental Flow Assessments that include cultural values (Williams, J. and Moyle P. Webb, A. and Kondolf, 2019) and the Historic Urban Landscape approach of UNESCO (World Conference of the League of Historical Cities, 2016) and other tools such as the hydro biography, big data and serious gaming. The conference participants will be invited to bring case descriptions of examples that will fit in the Framework in Figure 1. The outcomes of the conference will be a report on the interdisciplinary dialogue on the ‘values’ (both axes) of water related cultural heritage for present and future water challenges, examples and case descriptions covering as many as possible of the squares of Figure 1, and a Road Map for the development of operational tools and guidance for policy makers and planners. These will be presented at World Water Forum 9 in March 2022 in Dakar, and at the UN Water Decade’s Mid-Term Review in 2023.

The Blue Papers is a series of thought-provoking short essays on water. Authors have been invited by the platform Water Values: Connecting Past, Present & Future, an initiative of ICOMOS-NL, TU Delft and University of Groningen to argue the importance of heritage and a cultural approach within water related challenges. The papers were edited by PCF’s Carola Hein and Hilde Sennema.


Willems, W. and Schaik, H. van eds (2015). Water&Heritage: Material, Conceptual and Spiritual Connections. Leiden: Sidestone.

Williams, J. and Moyle P. Webb, A. and Kondolf,  (2019). Environmental Flow Assessment: Methods and Applications. John Wiley and Sons Inc.  

World Conference of the League of Historical Cities. (2016). The HUL Guidebook. World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region.

Blog cover photo by Sir Diederik Six