A hydraulic empire (also known as a hydraulic despotism, or water monopoly empire) is a social or government structure which maintains power and control through exclusive control over access to water. It arises through the need for flood control and irrigation, which requires central coordination and a specialized bureaucracy.
Often associated with these terms and concepts is the notion of a water dynasty. This body is a political structure which is commonly characterized by a system of hierarchy and control often based around class or caste. Power, both over resources (food, water, energy) and a means of enforcement such as the military are vital for the maintenance of control.
A developed "hydraulic civilization" maintains control over its population by means of controlling the supply of water. The term was coined by the German American historian Karl August Wittfogel (1896–1988), in Oriental Despotism (1957). Wittfogel asserted that such "hydraulic civilizations" — although they were neither all located in the Orient nor characteristic of all Oriental societies — were essentially different from those of the Western world.
Most of the first civilizations in history, such as Ancient Egypt, Ancient Somalia, Sri Lanka, Mesopotamia, China and pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, are believed to have been hydraulic empires. The Indus Valley civilization is often considered a hydraulic empire despite a lack of evidence of irrigation (as this evidence may have been lost in time due to flood damage). Most hydraulic empires existed in desert regions, but imperial China also had some such characteristics, due to the exacting needs of rice cultivation.
In the 15th century AD, the Ajuuraan Empire was the only hydraulic empire in Africa. As a hydraulic empire, the Ajuuraan State monopolized the water resources of the Shabelle and Jubba rivers. Through hydraulic engineering, it also constructed many of the limestone wells and cisterns of the state that are still operative and in use today. The rulers developed new systems for agriculture and taxation, which continued to be used in parts of the Horn of Africa as late as the 19th century.
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Wittfogel argues that climate caused some parts of the world to develop higher levels of civilization than others. He is known for claiming that climate in the Orient led to despotic rule. These arguments for climatic determinism are today echoed by the work of scholars such as Jared Diamond who suggests in his work Collapse that climatic and environmental determinants have been the central factor determining the rise and fall of empires. This environmental determinism comes to bear when considering that in those societies where the most control was exhibited, this was commonly the case due to the central role of the resource in economic processes and its environmentally limited, or constrained nature. This made controlling supply and demand easier and allowed a more complete monopoly to be established, as well as preventing the use of alternative resources to compensate. However, Diamond points out that complex irrigation projects predated states in Madagascar, Mexico, China and Mesopotamia.
The typical hydraulic empire government, in Wittfogel's thesis, is extremely centralized, with no trace of an independent aristocracy – in contrast to the decentralized feudalism of medieval Europe. Though tribal societies had structures that were usually personal in nature, exercised by a patriarch over a tribal group related by various degrees of kinship, hydraulic hierarchies gave rise to the established permanent institution of impersonal government. Popular revolution in such a state was impossible: a dynasty might die out or be overthrown by force, but the new regime would differ very little from the old one. Hydraulic empires were only ever destroyed by foreign conquerors.
Wittfogel's ideas, when applied to China, have been harshly criticized by scholars such as Joseph Needham who argued essentially that Wittfogel was operating from ignorance of basic Chinese history. Needham argued that the Chinese government was not despotic, was not dominated by a priesthood, had lots of peasant rebellions, and that Wittfogel's perspective does not address the necessity and presence of bureaucracy in modern Western civilization.
The same elements of resource control central to hydraulic empire were also central to Europe's colonization of much of the global South. Colonies were resource rich areas located on the periphery, and the contemporary models of core-periphery interaction were focused on the extraction and control of these resources for the use of the core. This was accomplished through a type of agro-managerial despotism with close connections to debates around hydraulic empire.
- The most famous hydraulic empire in fiction is probably described in Frank Herbert's Dune universe, which describes a traditional hydraulic empire on the planet Arrakis, as well as a galactic empire controlled by the limitation of the spice drug produced on Arrakis.
- The protagonist in Larry Niven's 1976 book, A World Out of Time, describes the concept of a water-monopoly empire to the antagonist. This becomes a major plot point. The same is true for his 1998 book Destiny's Road, where potassium takes the place of water.
- In S. M. Stirling's novel Drakon (The Domination series), the female drakensis Gwendolyn Ingolfson comments on Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism: "Interesting analysis. Very acute...my ancestors would probably have killed him."
- Hamdo, the primary villain of the 1999 anime series Now and Then, Here and There, seeks to control the entire desert world of Hellywood through complete control of its water.
- The 2011 western animated film Rango concerns the struggle for water between the local mafia and the inhabitants of the drought-stricken desert town of Dirt. As its mayor said, "Control the water and you control everything."
- 1995 film Tank Girl shows a similar set up, there has been no rain for over 11 years - water is extremely scarce, and what little is available is controlled by the Water & Power company, led by Kesslee (Malcolm McDowell).
- 1982 Robert Heinlein's book Friday was about an energy monopoly based on the The Shipstone.
- 1980's Chris Bunch and Allan Cole's - The Sten Adventures is about an energy monopoly based on AntiMatter.
- Wittfogel, Karl (1957). Oriental despotism; a comparative study of total power. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-0-394-74701-9.
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, page 283
- Diamond, Jared.2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Camberwell, Victoria : Penguin Group
- Myrdal, Gunner. 1957. Economic Theory and Under-developed Regions. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ltd.
- O'Reilly, Timothy (1981). "Chapter 3: From Concept to Fable". Frank Herbert. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc. Retrieved 2009-05-10. "In Arrakis, Herbert "set a planet where water is not available to the extent that it becomes the controlling element" for this "law of the minimum.""
- Frank Herbert's Dune. 2000. "Arrakis ... Dune ... wasteland of the Empire, and the most valuable planet in the universe. Because it is here — and only here — where spice is found. The spice. Without it there is no commerce in the Empire, there is no civilization. Arrakis ... Dune ... home of the spice, greatest of treasure in the universe. And he who controls it, controls our destiny."