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Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: Flows of water, flows of power

François Molle
Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), UR199, Montpellier, France;
Peter P. Mollinga
Department of Political and Cultural Change, ZEF (Center for Development Research), Bonn University, Germany;
Philippus Wester
Irrigation and Water Engineering Group, Wageningen University, the Netherlands;

ABSTRACT: Anchored in 19th century scientism and an ideology of the domination of nature, inspired by colonial hydraulic feats, and fuelled by technological improvements in high dam constructions and power generation and transmission, large-scale water resources development has been a defining feature of the 20th century. Whether out of a need to increase food production, raise rural incomes, or strengthen state building and the legitimacy of the state, governments - North and South, East and West - embraced the 'hydraulic mission' and entrusted it to powerful state water bureaucracies (hydrocracies). Engaged in the pursuit of iconic and symbolic projects, the massive damming of river systems, and the expansion of large-scale public irrigation these hydrocracies have long remained out of reach. While they have enormously contributed to actual welfare, including energy and food generation, flood protection and water supply to urban areas, infrastructural development has often become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, fuelling rent-seeking and symbolising state power. In many places projects have been challenged on the basis of their economic, social or environmental impacts. Water bureaucracies have been challenged internally (within the state bureaucracies or through political changes) and externally (by critiques from civil society and academia, or by reduced funding). They have endeavoured to respond to these challenges by reinventing themselves or deflecting reforms. This paper analyses these transformations, from the emergence of the hydraulic mission and associated water bureaucracies to their adjustment and responses to changing conditions.

KEYWORDS: Irrigation, hydraulic mission, water resource development, iron triangle, interest groups, reform