Luiza Prado: Welcome to Collusion, a podcast about technology and power. In the second episode, we will talk about water and irrigation technology and their influence on the political configuration of the contemporary world.
One of the reasons that encouraged us to choose water as the main theme for the second episode was its relation to the theme of the first episode, seeds. We talked quite a bit about seeds, crops, and how they influenced historical events, from World War II to the colonization of the Americas. However, none of the history we discussed in our first episode would have been possible if humanity hadn’t figured out how to control the flow of water to its will. Access to clean drinking water is one of the most basic human needs. The development of irrigation technologies was essential for humans to settle and form more complex societies. So today we will discuss how these technologies have influenced the political formation of several nations throughout history, and how this influence is still very present today.
Zara Rahman: The use of technology and infrastructure to control the flow of water is a useful starting point, not least because it continues to be controversial today. Throughout the colonies of the various European powers, water engineers used dams, ditches, and sluices to control the flow of water. They claimed that their approach to water management was more rational and efficient than existing indigenous approaches.
In practice, however, outcomes were mixed. Some argue that irrigation works in India contributed to food insecurity by reorienting domestic agriculture towards overseas markets. In Egypt, large dams contributed to salination problems and created a dependency on agricultural chemicals because they prevented the Nile’s annual inundation of surrounding land in silt deposition. The wider story of water technology and infrastructure in the colonies was often that ideas like rationality and efficiency disguised the political agendas involved. New waterways and canals were built to enhance communications, and thus make colonies easier to control and defend. From the colonial perspective, irrigation was also useful because it encouraged nomadic people to become sedentary, and thus easier to govern. It also helped draw them in to wage labor, and orientate agricultural towards overseas markets, thus making colonies more profitable.
Beneath the immediate social and physical impacts of new technology and the medium-term agendas of colonial powers, more fundamental processes linked technology, environment, and colonialism. Many colonial scientists were curious about indigenous technologies. Some engineers admired them, and argued that traditional practices were superior to ones which colonial powers wanted to introduce.
More commonly, however, and particularly from the mid 18th century, Europeans took the view that their technologies were superior, and that their society was superior as a result. Not only that, they believed they had an obligation to improve the world, and technology was central to this.
Let’s take a look now at an area whose use of water changed considerably thanks to technological interventions, India under British rule. The extension and development of irrigation were arguably the most transformative innovation that happened in colonial India. Development of an extensive canal network across the country naturally had a huge effect on agriculture and the lives of those who lived off the land.
On the surface, this network of canals seems to be one of the most positive ways in which the British colonial regime contributed to the welfare of Indian people. But, if there’s anything I’ve learned so far, these narratives are rarely as rosy as they seem, so let’s dig a little further.
Beginning in the 1880s, the British built a series of all-season canals, known as perennial canals. The flow of water was controlled by permanent low dams known as weirs built across the rivers. The argument for the canals was strong. It appeared to open up millions of acres of wasteland for new agricultural settlement. It was also one of the most obvious and visible interfaces between colonial presence and peasant society, and much more tangible than most. Peasants, for example, could stop spending so much time on manual well irrigation and use that time for increasing their productivity and output.
It turns out, though, that the motivations of the British weren’t quite so noble. Irrigation of land is naturally closely linked to agriculture, and this was key to British colonial policy. Before these transformations took place, many communities were focused on raising livestock, and they were known as pastoralists. They were nomadic, and so they were much harder for the British to keep track of.
So to counter this, the British decided that one of the key points for their colonial state would be to change these pastoralist communities into agricultural communities. This meant that they would be tied to their land, and much easier to monitor and control. Giving them the means of cultivating and the means of irrigation was seen as the best way to establish this more stable peasantry. This was seen as a priority for British powers, as it is linked closely to political stability.
Another aim for building the new irrigation works was to increase colonial revenues and expand commercial production. Investment in canal irrigation consistently yielded an 8 to 10 per cent return on investment up until 1945. So it was seen by the British government to be a successful and profitable intervention. Later on, famine factored into the discussion of revenue. After a disastrous famine in 1837 to 1838, the British East India Company suffered a considerable loss of revenue after spending nearly $10 million rupees on relief works. Building up irrigation technologies to enable more people to get easy access to water was seen as a way to prevent future famines.
So how did all these canals actually get built? In order to dig the canals, manual labor was needed and naturally this came in the shape of poorer communities. This class of people were often dominated by privileged local elites, and they became indispensable both for the initial digging and for yearly obligations like canal maintenance and silt clearance. Being able to mobilize these communities was critical to maintaining the canals in working order. Though it was of key importance to state policy, it was achieved less by direct state control than by the state’s ability to manipulate local elites. These local elites then in turn manipulated the communities of canal sharers, or poorer communities that they had control over.
As a result, the structure centered around building those canals then linked two already powerful communities more tightly together. This gives a good example of how canal building wasn’t simply matter of technical innovation, but it was actually strongly connected with the political structures in play at the time.
We’ve discussed briefly the commercial reasons for setting up the canal network, in terms of boosting agriculture. But the profit taken by the state wasn’t just limited to the increased agricultural output. A canal water tax was charged to nearby populations, regardless of whether or not use was made of the canal in a particular year. Or, somewhat incredibly, whether or not there was a reliable supply of water from the canal.
Elizabeth Whitcombe argues that the expansion of canal irrigation led to the growth of more lucrative commercial crops at the expense of stable food crops. This meant that during drought-induced scarcity, people did not have enough to eat, and their dependency on markets and money lenders increased.
Some less talked-about effects of canals were observed in the Punjab, which is now an area of land split between modern-day India and Pakistan. As per British policy, which we mentioned earlier, colonial water technologies such as weirs and dams were focused on providing constant irrigation for settled agriculture. None of them took into account already-existing water technologies, however. And it turns out this wasn’t so much that this was because they couldn’t coexist with traditional water harvesting systems, but more than that, they were aimed at actually eliminating the existing water systems.
Prior to irrigation brought by the British, traditional water harvesting techniques such as ahar pynes existed. These were traditional floodwater harvesting systems, indigenous to south Bihar, which up until the late 19th century were the most important source of irrigation into the region. They consisted of catchment basins embanked on three sides (these were known as ahars), linked by pynes, artificial channels constructed to use river water and agricultural fields, and these were constructed up to 20 kilometers in length.
During the canal building process, reports state that engineering staff often consciously placed canal distributaries across existing ahar and pynes, with the sole intention of injuring or destroying them. This decision came with unintended consequences still seen in recent times. In 1949, a flood advisory committee investigating continuous floods in Bihar’s Gaya district came to the conclusion that the fundamental reason for occurrence of floods was the destruction of the old irrigation system in the district.
A report released by a Delhi-based NGO called the Center for Science and Environment in 1997 called Dying Wisdom also outlined a historical claim that irrigation technologies had much more widespread and negative social impacts on Indian society. The way that legislation around access to canals was laid out put a clear emphasis on the idea of commodifying land and instituting private property. These structures prioritized over previous social structures such as community control.
Other intended consequences came from transforming flood plains from being watered by season canals to sites for constant and consistent irrigation works. This transformation brought with it multiple assumptions about social rules, economic practices, and as a result social and physical contexts were reordered. This combination of engineering science and control of society and nature (or attempted control) has been labeled by David Gilmartin as a creation of a colonial resource regime, and later discussed as “colonial hydrology.”
The commonly-heard inciting narrative of the canals providing irrigation to desolate wastelands also seems to have some holes in it. An essay by Indu Agnihotri outlines how colonial canal systems overran and eroded vibrant pastoral communities in the Punjab region. Although the land didn’t support a settled population as the British understood population to be, it provided vital resources to nomadic tribesmen. But, because of the way the colonial land rights system was established, these communities had no claim over this land. The lands were labeled as unclaimed lands and this claim was supported by other colonial legislation around forestry and tribes, and it was claimed by the British as “Crown waste.”
So the plan to settle pastoralist communities went ahead. The local population was tied to the land, making it easier for administrators to quantify and document the society in a way that made sense to them, giving them shares in village assets and individual property rights.
A severe consequence of colonial irrigation technologies was around drainage. Seepage from canals raised the level of groundwater, rendering land unfit for cultivation, often accompanied by development of patches of salt, which prohibited the growth of crops. Though some stopgap procedures were attempted, like closing some canals for a certain period of time, they proved to be inadequate. This led to a major problem: outbreaks of malaria. During 1925 to 1930, the British province of Punjab had the highest death rate in the whole sub-continent, with two-thirds of all deaths being attributed to malaria. By the time of independence, two million acres, about one quarter of the total canal irrigated area in Punjab, was considered to be waterlogged.
A more recent study from 2012 by Elizabeth Whitcombe analyzed observations on geological and weather-related events published by the Geological Survey of India in its annual reports since the 1870s, and tallied this with records maintained by district medical offices, sanitary commissioners, and registrars of births and deaths to analyze the link between disease, irrigation, and climate. She concluded that
Variations in its transmission, incidence and prevalence were closely tied to the different deltaic environments of the Bengal and Indus basins and to the short-sightedness of many irrigation and related engineering schemes.
Elizabeth Whitcombe, “Indo-Gangetic river systems, monsoon and malaria”
By the time colonial rule ended on the Indian sub-continent, its intervention in the sphere of irrigation had ended up establishing state monopoly over water resources, and totally changing the way that agriculture and irrigation worked across India, with huge social consequences. Their aims of conquering nature ended up strengthening what some call “technological paternalism” and, somewhat incredibly, the main narrative today around British efforts at establishing irrigation networks in India still remains one of benefits brought to the Indian people thanks to advances in Western technology.
Luiza: Unfortunately, India’s history with irrigation technology and colonialism is not an exception. While researching for this episode, we came across many many examples of this kind of technology being used as a domination strategy. Water grabbing, along with land grabbing, are considered by many scholars as a new form of colonialism, allowing powerful agents to eject native, disenfranchised populations from certain areas.
One example of this is the situation in Palestine. Most of the Jordan Valley’s surface water supply comes from the Jordan River. While there have been plans to build canals that would distribute water between the dwellers of the valley, these plans never really came to be. Adding to that, Israel has been depleting the water supply from the river for decades, as well as redirecting it towards its own territories. As a consequence, the Palestinian population has dealt with severe water scarcity for decades. Israel also limits the development of wells on the West Bank, and since the war in 1967 has taken control over all major water resources in the region. This, unsurprisingly, is the result of a series of military actions and has helped Israel claim the most fertile chunk of that territory for itself. As a result of these actions, up to 800,000 Palestinians have fled into exile, and the development of the state of Palestine has been heavily hindered.
In Brazil, the construction of the Belo Monte Dam, the fourth-biggest in the world, in the Amazon region has affected the Kayapó, Arara, Juruna, Araweté, Xikrin, Asurini and Parakanã peoples, whose livelihoods depend upon the Xingu River. They have been tirelessly fighting against the dam since its project was first presented in the 1980s, but to no avail. Construction started in 2011. As a result, some of these people have been displaced from their ancestral lands. The quality of the water in the Xingu River and biodiversity in the region have already been affected, jeopardizing the primary food sources of local communities. There also may be uncontacted tribes in the affected area, which would be particularly vulnerable if displaced, as they are highly susceptible to most of our common diseases.
The dam is part of a huge hydroelectric plant that will provide energy for the entire country and propel the development of the aluminum and metallurgic industries. At what cost, though? By diverting the waters of the Xingu River in order to feed this industrial development plan, the Brazilian government carries forward the decimation of the indigenous people of Brazil, a bloody practice started by Portuguese colonists more than five hundred years ago.
The rhetoric behind projects like Belo Monte isn’t new. It is the rhetoric or a colonialist who brings development to supposedly backward or uncivilized populations. This narrative is a common denominator in the stories we have discussed today. It starts from the promise that these populations are incapable of understanding the true value of their land, and thus the colonial powers must show them how to make the most of it. The colonizer then goes on to build the necessary infrastructure, an infrastructure that is not designed for the benefit of the local population, mind you, but to extract as much wealth as possible from their land.
Of course, building infrastructure requires manpower and natural resources. The manpower is provided by the—often forced—labor of the local population. And the natural resources can be extracted from the occupied land. A neat little package for a colonial metropolis, one that requires little investment and gives enormous profits.
In his brilliant indictment of European colonialism titled How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney mentions that upon arriving in Zimbabwe Cecil Rhodes and his agents observed such masterful irrigation systems that they came to the conclusion they could only have been built by other Europeans. These irrigation systems had been built, of course, by older Zimbabwean societies, who had developed their own irrigation technologies through centuries of observation. However, the colonialists’ Euro-centric mindset prevented them from even considering this possibility.
Luckily, the history of water and irrigation is not exclusively one of oppression and colonialism. There are examples throughout history that show how access to water and irrigation technology can empower communities and propel their growth.
In Burkina Faso, for instance, self-organized local committees all over the country built mini dams and distributed water for farming during Thomas Sankara’s government in the 1980s. In Brazil, communities in the state of Minas Gerais have historically treated many illnesses with the famous mineral waters of São Lourenço or Caxambu, although that is now also changing.
What really struck me as we researched for this episode was how much power derives from access to water and irrigation technologies. Access to clean drinking water is a subject that we do see popping up frequently, especially if coupled with a discussion on sustainability. However, I had never really thought about how irrigation technologies have influenced the political, social, and cultural formation of entire countries.
Quite frankly, we have found such a massive amount of information on this subject that for me at first it was quite difficult to make sense of it all. After a while, though, we started seeing repeating patterns, particularly how irrigation and access to water were systematically used by colonial powers to dominate local populations and it was pretty depressing to realize that this domination strategy is still being used today as highlighted by the cases of Belo Monte and Israel’s domination of Palestine.
Right now, water is one of humanity’s main concerns for the next decades. Many new technologies for facilitating access to clean drinking water and for crop irrigation are currently being developed, but after reading all of these stories, we can’t help but wonder, who will these technologies really serve?
Thanks for listening to the second episode of Collusion, and until next time.
Research and links for this episode at the Collusion Tumblr site.