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.

Further Reference

Research and links for this episode at the Collusion Tumblr site.