If you should happen to be in Valencia, Spain…in the Plaza de la Virgen….on Thursday…at noon, you will have a chance to glimpse the oldest democratic body in the world in operation: the Tribunal de las Aguas (The Water Court).
Dating back over 1,000 years to the time of the Moorish conquest, the water court was originally set up by farmers to the south of the city to resolve water disputes between them. They delegated certain men to hear disputes between farmers and this tradition continued after Valencia was returned to Christian control.
There are many things about the water tribunals which are unique:
- The men who serve on the council are not lawyers.
- The authority of the court only extends to water disputes in Valencia.
- There are no records kept of the proceedings.
- Cases presented to the court are made orally and in person.
- The court will deliberate amongst themselves and render their verdict on the spot.
- The decision of the court is final.
- The court is specifically mentioned in the Spanish constitution.
- Decisions by the court cannot be appealed to a higher court.
It is a remarkable system that has served its purpose for over 1,000 years. It renders verdicts swift and efficiently and all its members are elected by the farmers who would bring cases before them.
In the 21st Century, however, there aren’t very many water disputes. Advanced farming methods and irrigation have solve most problems. Nonetheless, every week (with the exception of certain holidays) the water court is in session at the the Plaza de la Virgen.
Because there are so few water disputes now days, the sessions often are finished very quick. The officials will literally walk out, take their seat and the head official will call out to see if anyone from the various regions have any disputes. If no one has any claims to bring before the court, the judges will adjourn and leave. The entire process takes only a few minutes.
Because the system has passed the test of time, it has been suggested as a model for resolving water disputes in Israel/Palestine as well in other parts of the world where there are water issues.
As the tribunal usually conducts its business so swiftly, you will probably want to make sure to be there on time. There is also usually quite a crowd, especially during the tourist season. When I was there, the plaza was very crowded and the crowd began to assemble about 30 minutes before hand.
You will also want to visit the Cathedral which is adjacent to the plaza. In addition to learning about the history of the cathedral, you can also see the actual Holy Grail (or so they claim).
So, if you are in Valencia, on Thursday, at noon, make sure to stop by the Plaza de la Virgen for what I guarantee will be the most democratic 5 minutes you will experience in Valencia.