Water: Modernizing Political Structures

The importance of man’s domestication of fire takes the center stage in explaining the emergence of civilizations. On the other hand, water’s crucial role in organizing human populations takes a backseat. If fire domestication planted the seed for a civilized world, then water domestication (the development of irrigation systems) acted as the fertilizer. A dire need for efficient irrigation systems led to a refinement of early human political structures. This concept is best represented in Egyptian ancient civilization. Constantly fluctuating water supplies in the area warranted not only a complex water management system, but also a highly efficient one. These water management techniques helped solidify government systems by providing a catalyst for bureaucratic development, the use of irrigation systems as political tools and the evolution of the concept of public utilities.

The complexity and importance of irrigation systems led to a need for a government system playing a highly administrative role. As a result, ancient irrigations systems helped propagate the implementation of highly branched governmental structures, which, in turn, solidified government’s role in early man’s daily life. Early water management systems depended on constant upkeep and attention to function efficiently. Citizens could not successfully undertake this responsibility because they lacked both the organization and influence necessary. It was at this point that governmental structures took it upon themselves to undertake this task. In Egypt, Government representatives were appointed to monitor and upkeep the components of the Nile Valley’s irrigation system and as a result the governmental hierarchy saw expansion (Drower). Not only did the government increase the size of its bureaucracy by creating new positions, it also increased the duties of existing positions—resulting in an increase of its direct influence on individual communities. For example, Egyptian provincial governors were given the duties of building new canals (Drower). As irrigation systems became more extensive, government positions grew and so did the number of communities with a direct government representative. The result was an increase of governmental influence over larger sectors of the population. An expanding bureaucracy would have not sufficed to strengthen the government. Rather, it was the government’s ability to meticulously manage all its employees that fed its growing power. The highly organized bureaucracy set in place was intended to insure irrigation system health, yet it also helped strengthen governmental influence. The division of labor and pyramid-style management not only insured that orders from top officials were executed but also meant the government’s influence reached even the most ‘rural’ populations. This effective process of disseminating governmental influence had a unifying effect by feeding the same ideas to all sectors of the population. The need for an adequate water supply led to an increase in government employees, but most importantly, called for a highly organized network of workers, which led to a highly influential governmental structure. Irrigation systems not only increased bureaucratic size, but also cemented its influence.

The importance of irrigation systems became evident early in their introduction. As cities and villages flourished under this form of water management, leaders came to the realization that said systems could serve as effective political tools. The construction, management and even destruction of irrigation systems became a way for the government to gain the support of its people and, most importantly, retain it. A leader could gain the grace of his people by building a new system or even by updating the existing one. He would gain immediate praise, but he would also leave a legacy—this legacy would prove to be a pivotal strategy as his progeny inherited seats of power. Thus, it proved to be an effective form of anchoring political power in family lines. A great example of this strategy is Rameses II’s successful construction of a well system after his predecessor’s, Seti I, failure and the legacy it created for Rameses and his heirs (Drower). Improving the efficiency of existing systems served as an equally powerful tool for political success. Revamping a poorly run set of canals or updating the bureaucratic hierarchy to ensure a well run system would earn a leader just as much praise as constructing a new one. This, in turn, created a positive image of the government in the eyes of the people and lessened the potential for dissention. Destructing irrigation systems became an equally effective mode of gaining the people’s support. In times of war, an advantage could be gained by cutting the other side’s water supply via the destruction of their irrigation systems. Sargon II used said strategy when he destroyed Armenia’s irrigation system to flood the city and eventually conquer it—gaining the political support of his people as a result (Drower). Winning a war campaign by manipulating the other side’s irrigation system meant not only a political win for the nation, but also an increase in the reputation of the campaign’s leader. At the same time, the possibility of a nation falling due to a poorly designed irrigation system meant leaders had to come up with ‘war-proof’ systems immune to sabotage by opponents. A successfully designed ‘war-proof’ would not only prevent a loss but also raise the prestige of the government bureaucrats in charge of designing it—and it also meant another expansion in bureaucracy, further cementing governmental influence. Overall, the successful creation, manipulation and destruction of irrigation systems resulted in their politicization, as they became a tool for political gain widely employed by leaders seeking public approval.

As irrigation systems flourished, the governmental structures of the time began to adopt a more ‘socialized’ role. The construction of these structures warranted the use of natural resources and the main questions arising included who would provide these resources, at what price and for whom. A shift was observed in the governmental structures of the time that stepped in to fill these gaps. The raw materials, such as reeds in the case of Egypt, became the responsibility of the government over any private supplier. In the case of Egypt, the government took it as its responsibility to fund and plant reed “forests” which provided the raw material necessary for the upkeep of dams (Drower). It could be argued the government simply aimed to further solidify its power over the population by becoming the sole supplier of such crucial material. On the other hand, one must take into account that it was probably the only entity with the organization and hierarchical structure needed to undertake such responsibility—it is doubtful a single private producer of raw materials could have undertaken such arduous duty. As a result of such a complex irrigation system, governments adopted many responsibilities and began paralleling our modern governmental structure. For example, the Egyptian government created a system for monitoring the Nile’s water level (Drower). This water level system could be used to warn different parts of the country of impending danger of floods much like we use governmental agencies to warn us of disasters like tornados. Thus, the implementation of effective irrigation systems led to a gradual implementation of a more involved government and the introduction of concepts mirroring the ideas of public utilities.

All in all, the development and management of irrigation systems in ancient times began a refining of political structures resulting in governmental institutions mirroring modern concepts. The organization and management necessary to accurately run and maintain these systems resulted in an increase of governmental bureaucracy, solidifying a larger government influence on the population. As the importance of irrigation systems became evident, they became political tools manipulated by those in power to obtain political gains. Irrigation systems also helped mold the concept of governments taking up additional responsibilities related to them, as result fueling the modern idea of public utilities. In the end, the implementation of efficient irrigation systems insured refined political structures mirroring modern ones.

Works Cited:

Drower, M.S., "Ch. 19: Water-supply, irrigation, and agriculture," in "A History of Technology, from Early Times to Fall of Ancient Empires" edited by Singer, Holmyard, and Hall, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1958, pp. 520-557.

Adrian Gonzalez

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last updated 3/15/10