Molle, et al. “Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: Flows of water, flows of power.”

Molle, F.; Mollinga, P.P. and Wester, P. 2009. Hydraulic bureaucracies and the hydraulic mission: Flows of water, flows of power. Water Alternatives 2(3): 328‐349

ABSTRACT: Anchored in 19th century scientism and an ideology of the domination of nature, inspired by colonial hydraulic feats, and fuelled by technological improvements in high dam constructions and power generation and transmission, large‐scale water resources development has been a defining feature of the 20th century. Whether out of a need to increase food production, raise rural incomes, or strengthen state building and the legitimacy of the state, governments – North and South, East and West – embraced the ‘hydraulic mission’ and entrusted it to powerful state water bureaucracies (hydrocracies). Engaged in the pursuit of iconic and symbolic projects, the massive damming of river systems, and the expansion of large‐scale public irrigation these hydrocracies have long remained out of reach. While they have enormously contributed to actual welfare, including energy and food generation, flood protection and water supply to urban areas, infrastructural development has often become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, fuelling rent‐seeking and symbolising state power. In many places projects have been challenged on the basis of their economic, social or environmental impacts. Water bureaucracies have been challenged internally (within the state bureaucracies or through political changes) and externally (by critiques from civil society and academia, or by reduced funding). They have endeavoured to respond to these challenges by reinventing themselves or deflecting reforms. This paper analyses these transformations, from the emergence of the hydraulic mission and associated water bureaucracies to their adjustment and responses to changing conditions.

KEYWORDS: Irrigation, hydraulic mission, water resource development, iron triangle, interest groups, reform



Note: This is an introductory article to a special section on hydraulic bureaucracies.

Object of inquiry:
“A cadre of professionals, most frequently civil engineers staffing hydraulic bureaucracies (hydrocracies) led this process [of water development by the state as an emergent and, at times, intentional, political strategy for controlling space, water and people and an important part of everyday state formation]”

Wittfogel’s hydraulic societies (huge flood-control works and irrigation systems linked to oriental despotism)

Historical overview:
Demise of early greater empires: large-scale hydraulic works virtually disappeared, with the exception of China.
They reappeared in the 19th century, as a child of colonialism.
“The second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century witnessed a general craze for irrigation development.”
“It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that public investments in irrigation became common, leading to the creation of state water bureaucracies.”
Ingredients of the “worldview” and “work ethos” of “hydrocracies”:

  1. These ingredients include an enthusiasm for “scientific irrigation”
  2. the associated view of the domination of nature, a view that many would now regard as hubris,
  3. the fascination conveyed by the “let the desert bloom” utopia,
  4. the moral ideal of farming,
  5. and the biblical/messianic overtone of the call for creating new Edens in deserts or arid places

The Emergence and Apogee of the ‘Hydraulic Mission’
“Not a single drop of water should reach the sea without being put to work for the benefit of Man: the ‘hydraulic mission’ was born (Molle, 2009; Wester, 2009)”
US Bureau of Reclamation as the foremost hydraulic bureacracy
Technological innovations: hydropower emerges as a justification for controlling water
Columbia basin as the “battery of the western coast”
Post-war period: 50s-60s: Cold War
This led to three distinct but interrelated forms of the hydraulic mission that combined to give way to its apogee:

  1. first, a reenactment of the ‘Oriental despotism’ of ancient times in the Soviet Union and communist China;
  2. second an (often) stateled massive capital investment in hydropower dams in western countries (together with irrigation in countries like Spain, Australia, or the western US);
  3. and, third, a ‘postcolonial despotism’ in newly independent ‘thirdworld’ countries.



Hydraulic Bureaucracies and Power, Politics and Money
Link to invisibility point: “Yet, beyond ideologies and political objectives, the eminent role of hydraulic bureaucracies was hardly visible on the front scene.”
Bureaucracies have their own sets of interests (budgets, institutional incentives, etc.)
“Beyond this institutional incentive, water and bureaucrats are also moved by a professional background where professional gratification is linked with the possibility to be associated with iconic projects where interventions on river systems are seen as the manifestation of the much
needed control of nature by humankind.”
Four other powerful actors: politicians, construction companies, landed elites and development banks.

Challenges to Hydraulic Bureaucracies
Environmental challenges: opposition to new dams
“Ecological turn” in water management
Internal challenge: rivalries between hydrocracies and other state bureaucracies
Financial squeeze that beset many countries since the 1980s
“Financial dearth, together with a neoliberal critique of state management, has also been a key factor behind the adoption of participatory irrigation management programmes worldwide.”
Environmental Movements
More general civil society challenges
Decentalisation of power
Supra-national layers of governance

Reproduction Strategies in a Changing World
(See this section for ways that hydrocracies have fought back)

(See this section on suggested areas for future research)


References to Look into:
(Ertsen, 2006) — California in the 19th and 20th centuries
(Wester, 2009)
(Pisani, 1992) Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers
Zetland (this issue) — links urban sprawl to reclamation
Lilienthal (1944) TVA: Democracy on the March
(Scott, 1998) High modernism in TVA-like projects
(Watson et al. and McCulloch, this issue) — role of engineering expertise
(Molle, 2008) — web of interests in water resources development
(Woodall, 1993; Gottlieb 1988; Zetland, this issue; Molle et al 2009) — iron triangles in water development
(Berkman and Viscusi, 1973; Gottlieb, 1988; Feldman, 1991; Allan, 2002) — Environmental opposition to new dams
(Allan, 2002) — “ecological turn” in water management
(de Schipper, 2008; Bijker, 2002; Disco, 2002; Wiering and Arts, 2006)– environmentalists challenges led to major changes in the Dutch hydrocracy


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