Folder Issue 2



Water, infrastructure and political rule: Introduction to the Special Issue

Julia Obertreis
Department of History, Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany;

Timothy Moss
Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Relations (IRI THESys), Humboldt University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany;

Peter P. Mollinga
Department of Development Studies, SOAS University of London, London, UK;

Christine Bichsel
Geography Unit, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland;

ABSTRACT: This introductory article sets the scene for this special issue on water, infrastructure and political rule. It makes the case for revisiting the complex relationships between these three dimensions which have fascinated scholars since Wittfogel’s pioneering – if much criticised – work on causal links between large-scale irrigation systems and autocratic leadership. Scholarship on water, on infrastructure, as well as on political rule has made huge advances since Wittfogel’s days, requiring a wholesome reappraisal of their triangular relationship. In this article, we review the relevant advances in scientific knowledge and epistemological approaches on each dimension. We subsequently summarise the different ways in which each of the following papers takes up and interrogates the relationship between water, infrastructure and political rule prior to the final paper which synthesises the principal findings emerging from the special issue.

KEYWORDS: Water, infrastructure, rule, Oriental despotism, Wittfogel



Water and the (infra-)structure of political rule: A synthesis

Christine Bichsel
Geography Unit, Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland;

ABSTRACT: This synthesis paper engages with the key messages which emerge from across the eight papers in this special issue. It situates them in the context of Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis and its legacy. The paper seeks to synthesise the insights of the papers with the aim to reinterpret the relationship between water, infrastructure and political rule and to provide a stimulus for further research.

KEYWORDS: Water, infrastructure, political rule, hydraulic society



Fostering Tajik hydraulic development: Examining the role of soft power in the case of the Rogun Dam

Filippo Menga
University of Manchester, School of Environment, Education and Development, Manchester, UK;

Naho Mirumachi
Department of Geography, King’s College London, London, UK;

ABSTRACT: Basin riparians are not equally endowed in their resources and capacity to control water within a shared international river basin. Beyond hydrological constraints and geographical positions, other less tangible factors such as discourses and narratives influence interactions among basin riparians for water resources control and river basin development, requiring further analytical refinement of the role of power. The analysis of discursive and ideological dimensions of power, or 'soft' power, in particular, enables insights to strategies and tactics of water control under conditions of power asymmetries between basin states. This paper examines the debate around the controversial large-scale Rogun Dam project on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan, exploring how the exercise of 'soft' power can, and sometimes cannot, shape transboundary water outcomes over water allocation. By focusing on international diplomacy and narratives, the paper provides insights into the non-coercive ways in which hydraulic development is justified. In particular, it is shown how 'soft' power was utilised by the Tajik decision-makers to legitimise dam development both at the international and domestic levels. The paper illustrates how, in the case of the Rogun Dam, 'soft' power falls short of determining a hydraulic development that changes the status quo of water allocation for Tajikistan.

KEYWORDS: Transboundary water relations, power, dams, Central Asia, Aral Sea Basin



Re-engineering the state, awakening the nation: Dams, Islamist modernity and nationalist politics in Sudan

Maimuna Mohamud
Heritage Institute for Policy Studies, Mogadishu, Somalia;

Harry Verhoeven
School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Georgetown University;

ABSTRACT: This article investigates how and why dam building has fulfilled a crucial role in hegemonic projects of elite consolidation and nation-building. By drawing on the case of Sudan’s Dam Programme and the associated propaganda the Khartoum government has produced, we show how the dams have not just served to materially restructure the Sudanese political economy but have also been essential in the attempted rekindling of the identity of both the regime and the country. Massive investment in hydro-infrastructure dovetailed with the political rebalancing of an authoritarian system in crisis, turning dam-builders into nation-builders: the message of the dams as midwife to a pious, prosperous and revitalised Sudan allowed it to reconcile the nationalism of its military and security wing with the enduring ambitions for transformation of its Islamist base. Dam building in Sudan, as elsewhere, has thus meant a physical redrawing of the landscape and intensified rent creation and seeking but also embodies a high modernist narrative that matches the interests and worldviews of very different constituencies. This, we argue, helps explain its salience in earlier periods of state-building and nation-building, as well as contemporarily.

KEYWORDS: Hydropolitics, dams, nationalism, Islamism, nation-building, Sudan



A matter of relationships – Actor-networks of colonial rule in the Gezira Irrigation System, Sudan

Maurits Ertsen
Water Resources Management, Delft University of Technology, Delft, The Netherlands;

ABSTRACT: In the first half of the 20th century, colonial rulers, a British firm and Sudanese farmers changed the Gezira Plain in Sudan into a large-scale irrigated cotton scheme. Gezira continues to be in use up to date. Its story shows how the abstract concept 'development' is shaped through the agency of humans and non-humans alike in government offices and muddy fields. Gezira provides a well-suited starting point for moving into the networks of development without any pre-suggested division in terms of levels, contexts or relations. Hierarchies, arenas and institutions do exist. Such power relations are associations between humans and non-humans: relatively stable relations are typically produced when non-human agency is involved, for example through books, roads, and money. The Gezira case shows the potential of actor-network theory in building and understanding of conceptual and empirical links between water, infrastructure and political rule.

KEYWORDS: Actor-network theory, material agency, power, infrastructure, social relations, Gezira scheme, Sudan



Ruling by canal: Governance and system-level design characteristics of large-scale irrigation infrastructure in India and Uzbekistan

Peter P. Mollinga
Department of Development Studies, SOAS University of London, London, UK;

Gert Jan Veldwisch
Water Resources Management Group of Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands;

ABSTRACT: This paper explores the relationship between governance regime and large-scale irrigation system design by investigating three cases: 1) protective irrigation design in post-independent South India; 2) canal irrigation system design in Khorezm Province, Uzbekistan, as implemented in the USSR period, and 3) canal design by the Madras Irrigation and Canal Company, as part of an experiment to do canal irrigation development in colonial India on commercial terms in the 1850s-1860s. The mutual shaping of irrigation infrastructure design characteristics on the one hand and management requirements and conditions on the other has been documented primarily at lower, within-system levels of the irrigation systems, notably at the level of division structures. Taking a 'social construction of technology' perspective, the paper analyses the relationship between technological structures and management and governance arrangements at irrigation system level. The paper finds qualitative differences in the infrastructural configuration of the three irrigation systems expressing and facilitating particular forms of governance and rule, differences that matter for management and use, and their effects and impacts.

KEYWORDS: Canal irrigation, design, governance, management, India, Uzbekistan



Conserving water and preserving infrastructures between dictatorship and democracy in Berlin

Timothy Moss
Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Relations (IRI THESys), Humboldt University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany;

ABSTRACT: This paper sheds a long-term perspective on the politics of water infrastructure in 20th century Berlin, focusing on how water conservation became enrolled in the political agendas of very diverse regimes, from the Weimar Republic to the present day. The paper poses the following three questions: firstly, in what socio-technical and political contexts have strategies of water conservation emerged (and disappeared) in Berlin? Secondly, what meanings have been attributed to these strategies and how were they politically appropriated? Thirdly, what continuities and changes to water-saving strategies can be traced across Berlin’s turbulent 20th century history? These questions are addressed with an empirical analysis of four periods of Berlin’s water infrastructure history: a) an era of expansion (1920-1935) about harnessing (regional) water for (urban) prosperity, b) an era of national autarky (1936-1945) about enrolling urban water in the Nazi cause, c) an era of division (1948-1989) about reordering truncated water flows in divided West and East Berlin, and d) an era of reunification (1990-present) in which expansionism has confronted environmentalism, giving rise to contestation over the desirability of water conservation. This empirical analysis is framed conceptually in terms of a dialogue between notions of obdurate socio-technical systems and dynamic socio-material assemblages.

KEYWORDS: Water politics, water conservation, infrastructure history, path dependence, assemblage, Berlin



Transnational system building across geopolitical shifts: The Danube-Oder-Elbe Canal, 1901-2015

Jiří Janáč
Institute of Contemporary History, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic;

Erik van der Vleuten
School of Innovation Sciences, Eindhoven University of Technology, Eindhoven, Netherlands;

ABSTRACT: We study the politics of water infrastructure through the Large Technical Systems (LTS) literature, which examines human agency in the dynamics of complex sociotechnical systems. We take into account the transnational turn in LTS-studies in the past decade. Transnational analysis is about the mutual shaping of the international, national, and local. Accordingly, we look at how key system builders – historical agents envisioning and working on the entire sociotechnical system – identified and negotiated international, national, regional, and local politics through the design process. We do this for the intriguing case of the Danube-Oder-Elbe Canal, the so-called 'missing link' between the North, Baltic, and Black Seas, with a design history spanning wildly diverging paradigms of political rule – from imperialism to fascism, communism, and 'EU-ropeanism'.

KEYWORDS: Large Technical Systems, water politics, transnational infrastructure, Central European history, transnational history, environmental history



Infrastructural relations: Water, political power and the rise of a new 'despotic regime'

Veronica Strang
Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University, Durham, UK;

ABSTRACT: It is 60 years since Karl Wittfogel highlighted a key relationship between political power and the ownership and control of water. Subsequent studies have suggested, commensurately, that exclusion from the ownership of essential resources represents a fundamental form of disenfranchisement – a loss of democratic involvement in societal direction. Several areas of theoretical development have illuminated these issues. Anthropologists have explored the recursive relationship between political arrangements and cosmological belief systems. Narrow legal definitions of property have been challenged through the consideration of more diverse ways of owning and controlling resources. Analyses of material culture have shown how it extends human agency, as well as having agentive capacities itself; and explorations of infrastructures have highlighted their role in composing socio-technical and political relations. Such approaches are readily applied to water and the material culture through which it is controlled and used. Drawing on historical and ethnographic research on water in Australia and the UK, this paper traces changing relationships between cosmological beliefs, infrastructure and political arrangements over time. It suggests that a current trend towards privatised, transnational water ownership potentially opens the door to the emergence of new 'despotic regimes'.

KEYWORDS: Water ownership, water governance, human-nonhuman relations, UK, Australia



Water infrastructure and the making of financial subjects in the south east of England

Alex Loftus
Department of Geography, King’s College, London, UK;

Hug March
Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3), Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Castelldefels, Spain;

Fiona Nash

ABSTRACT: Over the last four decades the locus of economic power has shifted from industry to finance. As part of this trend, the 'financialisation' of the water sector has added a new layer of complexity to the hydrosocial cycle, witnessed in the emergence of new financial actors, logics and financing instruments. Such a shift has profoundly reshaped the relationship between water utilities and consumers in the South East of England, where the household has become, in the words of Allen and Pryke (2013), a human revenue stream for financialised utilities. In this paper, we make an argument that the water meter is one of the crucial mediators through which finance will touch the lives of individual subjects. In the South East of England, after initial opposition to universal metering – in part shaped by fears over fluctuating revenues – water companies are now embedding a metering programme within a billing and tariff structure that aims to ensure governable and predictable subjects. Drawing on Urban Political Ecology, we argue that the financialisation of the water sector in England shapes the emergence of new financial subjectivities while enabling new forms of political rule that operate at a range of spatial scales.

KEYWORDS: Water meters, financialisation, hydrosocial cycle, households, South East England



Water services, lived citizenship, and notions of the state in marginalised urban spaces: The case of Khayelitsha, South Africa

Lucy Rodina
Institute for Resources Environment and Sustainability, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada;

Leila M. Harris
Institute for Resources Environment and Sustainability, and Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada;

ABSTRACT: In this paper we argue that in South Africa the state is understood and narrated in multiple ways, notably differentiated by interactions with service provision infrastructure and the ongoing housing formalisation process. We trace various contested narratives of the state and of citizenship that emerge from interactions with urban water service infrastructures. In effect, the housing formalisation process rolls out through specific physical infrastructures, including, but not limited to, water services (pipes, taps, water meters). These infrastructures bring with them particular logics and expectations that contribute to a sense of enfranchisement and associated benefits to some residents, while others continue to experience inadequate services, and linked exclusions. More specifically, we learn that residents who have received newly built homes replacing shack dwellings in the process of formalisation more often narrate the state as legitimate, stemming from the government role as service provider. Somewhat surprisingly, these residents at times also suggest compliance with obligations and expectations for payment for water and responsible water consumption. In contrast, shack dwellers more often characterise the state as uncooperative and neglectful, accenting state failure to incorporate alternative views of what constitutes appropriate services. With an interest in political ecologies of the state and water services infrastructures, this paper traces the dynamic processes through which states and citizenship are mutually and relationally understood, and dynamically evolving. As such, the analysis offers insights for ongoing state-society negotiations in relation to changing infrastructure access in a transitioning democracy.

KEYWORDS: Informal settlements, water services, citizenship, access to water, South Africa