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 CE, the Ajuran Empire was the only hydraulic empire in Africa. As a hydraulic empire, the Ajuran State monopolized the water resources of the Jubba and Shebelle 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. 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 protagonist in Larry Niven's A World Out of Time (1976) describes the concept of a water-monopoly empire to the antagonist. This becomes a major plot point. In his book Destiny's Road (1998), potassium (a trace nutrient) takes the place of water.
- In S. M. Stirling's novel Drakon (1996), the drakensis Gwendolyn Ingolfson comments on Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism: "Interesting analysis. Very acute…my ancestors would probably have killed him."