Barnes, Jessica. 2014. Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Verhoeven, Harry. 2015. Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan: The Political Economy of Military-Islamist State Building. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Almost four billion people are projected to live in river basins experiencing severe water stress in 2050, according to the OECD’s most recent environmental outlook (OECD 2012). This is not a distant challenge, however. Iconic rivers as diverse as the Colorado, Murray-Darling, Orange, and Yellow are closed or closing, often failing to meet downstream requirements for ecosystems and livelihoods (Grafton et al. 2013; Molle et al. 2010). These trends have been attributed to a confluence of factors: population growth, resource demands for food and energy security, and climate change. Increasingly, however, water crises have been framed as governance crises (OECD 2011).

Unpacking the governance crises surrounding water requires confronting—and embracing—politics (Schlager and Blomquist 2008). The politics of water involve situating water as part of a wider web of relationships between the state and society and between nation-states sharing contested waters. Water has received attention for its role in statebuilding, particularly since Wittfogel’s controversial “hydraulic society” thesis (Wittfogel 1957). The hydraulic society thesis holds that the challenges posed by arid and semi-arid water systems require a specialized bureaucracy that can breed totalitarian, or despotic, rule. The thesis has long been discredited for its association with environmental determinism and neglect of contradictory evidence of peasant revolutions and alternative forms of social organization; nevertheless, it remains deeply entrenched, as do the prescriptions for a strong state with centralized control over the resources required to master complex hydrological challenges.

International rivers have become the subject of a sprawling literature investigating evidence for the “water wars” thesis, namely that disputes over water will cascade into violent conflict between nation-states. Evidence of local violence over water exists, as is illustrated by the role of drought and climate change in the Syrian civil war (Gleick 2014). However, the causal links are complex; despite water shortages and climate variability acting as a threat multiplier, “dreaded water wars are not an empirical reality” (Verhoeven 2015). Efforts to systematically assess patterns of cooperation and conflict over water have demonstrated the prevalence of cooperation historically (Wolf 2007), hinging on the capacity of water institutions to keep pace with evolving threats in a period of rapid global change and intensifying resource scarcity. Concerns that the past willnot presage the future have fueled continued fascination and debate over water wars, stoked in 1995 by the oft-quoted statement by former vice president of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water.

Nowhere have the hydraulic society and water wars theses been as frequently invoked as the Nile—a cradle of ancient civilization flowing over 6,000 km and encompassing eleven nation-states, including Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. The river has been the subject of a series of important historical treatments, including the classical account by Waterbury that coined the term “hydropolitics” (Waterbury 1979). It has since spawned a series of monographs assessing the legacy of colonial control and the evolving determinants of collective action (Tvedt 2004; Waterbury 2008).

This essay considers two recent additions to the extensive body of scholarship on the Nile, each adopting a similar analytical approach (political ecology) to provide new perspectives on the influence of water politics on the relationship between the state, society, and environment. In the first book, Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan: The Political Economy of Military-Islamist State Building, Harry Verhoeven focuses on “state building through a very specific set of water and agricultural policies, as advanced by successive colonial and Sudanese regimes” (p. 249), a phenomenon described as a “hydro-agricultural mission” guided by transformation of a petro-economy through the construction of dams and irrigation to control the peripheral south.

Verhoeven situates his work at the intersection of two analytical approaches: political ecology and historical sociology. He draws on these two approaches to challenge three dominant frames for dissecting water politics and the state: environmental determinism, technocratic environmentalism, and liberal institutionalism. He argues that state-building in Sudan is a dialectical process that involves specific projects that affect the degree of government or political organization by instrumentalizing the environment. The book draws on interviews and testimonials from dozens of elites to chronicle successive waves of irrigation and water infrastructure schemes in the context of colonial development and Sudanese state-building.

The same state failure that breeds continuity also provides the seeds of change. The dependence on the hydro-agricultural mission to assert control over peripheral lands underpins Sudan’s extraversion—the role of elites in the global economic system to “consolidate their grip on power” (p. 10). Sudan’s evolving relationship with the Gulf Arabs and China has enabled and helped fund the hydro-agricultural mission. Changes in regional and global political economy have in turn combined with domestic politics, marked by the secession of South Sudan, to weaken the hydropolitical status quo along the Nile. The status quo was dominated by tensions between downstream interests and historic rights held by Egypt, on the one hand, and the upstream development potential in Ethiopia, with Sudan long held in close alliance with Egypt’s position. 2011 marked a watershed year. The fall of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, coupled with the secession of South Sudan and the start of construction for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), punctuated a period of flux in the Sudanese region and the Nile. The book identifies how the historical logic of water, civilization, and power that “violently created scarcity for so many and produced prosperity for so few” is expected to survive despite these changes, unless there is a “fundamental rethink” (p. 273). Verhoeven argues that viewing state-building with a “water lens” (p. 252) departs sharply from Wittfogel’s conception, and instead reveals how historical blocs have derived control by “constructing” the environment, rather than the other way around.

In Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt, Jessica Barnes also uses a political ecological approach, but she does so in service of contrasting aims and arguments. She draws on ethnographic research in the period from 2007 to 2009, prior to the disruptions in 2011 noted above, to argue how everyday politics “make” water in Egypt. She identifies a lacuna in the literature on the Nile regarding the effects of quotidian practices related to technologies, management decisions, and agricultural practices. Barnes follows the droplet of water from the agricultural fields to foreground “politics with a lower-case p” (Bijker 2007), through “moving, blocking, storing, redirecting and utilizing water”(p. 26).

Egypt’s dependence on the Nile for the vast majority of its water has contributed to a highly centralized system of water management and control, a context that would seem to crowd out the agency of water users. Instead, Barnes draws on observation and participation in projects in the Fayoum Province to illustrate how “people carrying out everyday acts can generate scarcity” (p. 44). The argument is based on the perspectives of farmers, engineers, and donors and is structured around different practices, including the diversion of water, participation in water users’ associations, reclamation of land, and management of irrigation drainage.

She travels first to the end of the ministry’s influence over water, the mesqa, where farmers cooperate in Fayoum Province to allocate water using a rotation system, mutarfa, providing access for blocks of time. The promotion of water users’ associations, traced to pilot programs funded by international donors, illustrates how institutional structures, like water, are “always in the making” (p. 76)—how everyday practices reflect different versions of participation as communication, role transfer, and democracy building.

Barnes notes that even though everyday practices matter, not all agency is created equally. Land reclamation is viewed as an instance of accumulation by dispossession, whereby smallholders and investors “exhibit contrasting forms of agency … to tap into the Nile” (p. 134). Finally, in a land of perceived scarcity, water excess in the form of irrigation drainage and salinity control becomes a paradoxical site of “subsurface politics” with more diffuse networks and politics compared to centrally administered distribution systems, which illustrates how the everyday practices by engineers, contractors, and farmers shape an uneven pattern of access to irrigation drainage. Together, the practices associated with diversion, participation, reclamation, and irrigation drainage reveal the paradoxical primacy of the everyday practices that “make” Egypt’s water and create the multiple forms of water and ways of knowing it.

The two volumes share a focus on the Nile, a political ecological approach, and a central role for agency in the politics of water. The books also share a multiscale perspective on the interactions across the state, society, and environment, selecting specific entry points into what Waterbury (2008, 57) describes as a “three-level game” comprising actors outside of the Basin (e.g., Britain during the colonial era), nation-states, and subnational interests. In Cultivating the Nile, Barnes follows the water droplet up these chains of causation and control, while Water, Civilisation and Power traces the elite politics of the Sudanese state in relation to its extraversion strategy, on the one hand, and resistance in the southern peripheries of the Sudanese state, on the other. In both Egypt and Sudan, the paradoxes and limits of centralization become evident. In Egypt, the strength of the Mubarak regime is juxtaposed with the daily practices used to exert control over water’s flow, institutional practices, and technologies. In Sudan, elite politics and an extraversion strategy advanced a hydro-agricultural mission as a means of state-building before the secession of South Sudan. Technical expertise is a binding element that connects the spectrum of elite politics and everyday practices shaping contests over the Nile.

The commonalities mask important differences, highlighting the diversity of analytical approaches falling under the umbrella of political ecology. Both volumes share a dialectical view of people and the environment. For Verhoeven, politics and the environment are co-constitutive. Water is “not merely a physical phenomenon, but also a set of ideas, material practices and power relations” (p. 12). Barnes would agree, while arguing clearly that “the politics of water stems not from the way in which people talk or write about water but from the material ways in which they control, manipulate, access and consume it” (pp. 176–177). Underlying these subtle differences are contrasting views of the types of agency critical for understanding how state, society, and environment interact—elites in the case of Sudan (Verhoeven), and water users, engineers, and donors in the Egyptian case (Barnes). Both perspectives may be considered partial on their own, but together, a more nuanced view of water politics is possible. Barnes offers a path toward reconciling these perspectives by arguing for an embrace of plurality, multiple meanings, and material practices. In this sense, the two volumes can and should be viewed as complementary, when combined with a structural perspective on the politics and determinants of collective action offered by Waterbury and others.

The Nile is at once sui generis and emblematic of the geopolitics of international rivers. As one of the longest rivers in the world, in a region experiencing dramatic political and economic change as part of a fast growing continent, context clearly matters when considering the lessons and implications of the Nile. Nevertheless, Verhoeven draws parallels between the Nile and the politics of dams and state-building in Sudan, Spain, and India; he also links Sudan and India with Nepal, Myanmar, and Brazil to illustrate the politics of dams in the context of “wider core-periphery tensions, state-building ambitions and sprawling, globalised rent-seeking networks” (p. 266). Barnes also argues that everyday politics in the Nile speak “beyond the particular case in question to broader debates about how we understand water” (p. 175).

A report commissioned by the US Department of State in 2012 identified the Nile as among the rivers that illustrate the potential for water issues to “contribute to instability in states important to US national security interests” (US National Intelligence Council 2012), due to limited river basin management capacity. Consequently, the Nile is a geopolitical flashpoint viewed with concern by regional and international observers focused on the potential spillover of disputes, leading to a push for frameworks to compare and learn from the politics and capacity-building efforts in stressed rivers (Srinivasan et al. 2012). In this context, the 21st century will be a period of increasing exchange and mutual learning across contexts, scales, and areas of expertise (Wescoat 2009)

The increasing pressure on the world’s rivers has brought with it a golden age of research on the politics of water in contested regions, which creates new needs and opportunities for critical analysis and comparison. The Nile illustrates, however, that it is not enough to suggest that water is political, nor to use a single analytical perspective (political ecology) to draw and compare lessons within rivers, let alone across them. Instead, these two books illustrate that the politics of water are both plural and always partial, requiring a hydropolitics that takes context seriously to understand how rivers, states, and society interact across scales, perspectives, and time.

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