New Internationalist Issue 273
Kings of the water
River water has been critical to the making of human history. This is especially true for the people who have lived in deserts since the dawn of human civilization. Some of the most elaborate works of river engineering and the social structures needed to support them have been established to maintain life under hostile dryland conditions. NI traces the promise and the pitfalls of hydraulic societies both ancient and modern.
Irrigation is almost as old as agriculture itself. It was practised on a small scale to grow food for local consumption (and even surplus). Elaborate canal systems to water the crops of the Papago or 'bean people' allowed these native Americans to survive some of the harshest conditions of the Sonoran desert. Intricate systems of small reservoirs or qanats and spring tunnels were used to capture precious run-off in a belt stretching from Palestine to Iran. The lighter the touch in dealing with delicate dryland eco-systems the better the chance of avoiding waterlogging or salt-poisoning of fertile topsoils. Today such locally-controlled irrigation is still in operation from the rice fields of Bali to the 100,000-odd irrigation co-operatives that dot the Japanese countryside.
Larger-scale irrigation systems are integrally tied to the development of the absolutist state that came to dominate small villages in the valleys of major rivers from the Tigres-Euphrates to the Yangtze and Yellow rivers of China. The state itself arose in the drylands of the Middle East where it co-ordinated the major works of irrigation and water control. The trade-off was simple: dependable water supply and relative safety from floods for tribute, labour and obedience. Huge armies of labourers had to be mobilized first to build and then to maintain elaborate systems of dikes and irrigation canals. The Nilometer measured the Nile's crucial flood - 16 cubits was ideal. Religions of sacrifice and the worship of river gods - Isis and Hapi on the Nile, Ninurta in Mesopotamia and Ganga in ancient India - were part of the cosmology of a ruling priesthood. The bending of rivers to human will occurred at the same time as bending the will of the many to the dictates of the few. Today most of their great water works lie in ruins.
The Mystical Source
For the European culture of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment the sources of the world's great rivers took on a symbolic and metaphoric importance. The source of the Nile in particular became associated with everything from the Garden of Eden and the Horn of Plenty to the nourishment of political liberty. The fountains of Bernini made use of ornamental water hydraulics that were later to shape modern engineering and featured classical figures of crouched or reclining (but always well-muscled) river gods of four continents. Early European explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh were obsessed by the idea that rivers of the New World (such as the Orinoco) would lead them to the gold of an elusive El Dorado. In later literature writers like Joseph Conrad used the river as inspiration to explore the journey into the human psyche.
Dams for Development
This model of a prosperous US West has bewitched modernizers around the world and led to an era of large dam construction starting in the early 1960s. Generally dam-building and large irrigation projects came to be seen as progressive steps in the march to independence. The High Aswan Dam across the Nile completed in 1964 with Soviet help, was a symbol of Third World independence from neo-colonial control. Since then the Volta, the Zambesi, the Ganges, the Indas, the Paranai are just a few of the great rivers of the Third World breached to supply dependable water for irrigation and the voltage necessary to jolt an industrial take-off. A powerful consortium of nationalist politicians, multilateral lenders and transnational engineering and construction firms have reshaped river eco-systems as a vital part of industrial infrastructure. Advantages and wealth for some came right away, except to those uprooted from their homes (four million at last count), costs have been slower to accumulate. The curse of salted and waterlogged fields, coastal erosion, ruined fisheries, staggering debt, and escalating repair bills are just now beginning to hit home.
The Western notion of the river mirrored first in the great Roman aqueducts was a linear highway to be shaped by destination and purpose. European rivers such as the Rhine have been heavily engineered mostly to accommodate shipping. But modern hydraulic society reached its highest expression in the American West. Here a vast wilderness was flooded with settlers looking for the promised land and finding mostly arid and semi-arid desert. Many went to the wall before billion-dollar investments in water infrastructure made the desert bloom. The Mormons led the way with a rigid theocracy directing the irrigation of Utah. By the 1930s the construction of the Hoover Dam on the wayward Colorado River initiated the era of the mega-dam. Today California's Imperial Valley, one of the world's great food-producing regions, and thirsty and energy-hungry desert metropolises such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas are lavish testimony to the taming of the Colorado, Columbia and myriad other Western rivers.
Respecting the River
Dam sites these days are usually surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. With good reason. The movement to resist river engineering has gained real momentum in the last decade. In the industrial North dams are becoming almost as controversial as nuclear power plants. Costs and environmental impacts undergo minute scrutiny. The number of new dams has fallen dramatically. In the South resistance has proved more difficult with 'resettled' farmers and green activists getting blows from police truncheons rather than seats at assessment hearings. Still some notable victories have been achieved - a number of dams have been stopped in Thailand, the corruption-ridden Bangladesh Flood Action Plan has been scaled back dramatically and the World Bank has been forced to withdraw from several mega-dam projects on the Indian sub-continent. And the movement is putting alternatives on the agenda - energy development that works with a river rather than trying to reshape and conquer it. Traditional small-scale methods of irrigation are also being revived, from Karez in Western China (small-scale water catchment) to the stone lines used in arid Sahelian Africa and the rebuilding of age-old raised fields to aid drainage by the Quechua Indian farmers near Lake Titicaca in Peru.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995