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Irrigation in Egypt/Iraq Paper


Massive infrastructure projects within the 20th century have typically been harnessed for nationalistic purposes. While most analysis focuses on the nationalism generating certain types of public works projects, projects constructed under colonial governments and then semi-independent governments reflect much upon the status of a state as well. Irrigation projects in particular are interesting as they are the nexus for a multitude of interests. Dams and irrigation projects may be built to tame natural events such as flooding, used to generate electricity to support a growing population, used as irrigation channels to allow for more productive agriculture. Beyond the technocratic goals, irrigation projects are complex, often requiring outside expertise, and are capital intensive, often requiring the explicit support of the state. As a result, not only does the usage of irrigation projects reflect the goals of the state and the engineers, but the secondary effects such as urbanization, land reform, and the process of construction all refract different interests. Notions rural modernization and the usage of dams as nationalist symbols allows for greater understanding of the nationalist psyche. The kaleidoscope of actors in Egypt and Iraq, from the British colonial powers and the Khedive, to the Young Turks, to the newly created “independent” states, all sought to realize their visions of the future via irrigation projects.

Viewing irrigation projects holistically allows them to be a useful lens in analyzing how states conceived of the past and the future. The Aswan Low Dam in Egypt, alongside the Hindiya Barrage in Iraq, were both constructed by William Willcocks, and influenced by similar biases. Willcocks, in the construction Aswan Low Dam, sought to manage the expectations and desires of the British public to preserve the Temple of Philae, while simultaneously managing his desires to build grand works that succeeded the Pharaonic era. The debates around the minutiae of the Philae Temple, which captured British public imagination, is a reflection on how the British empire saw itself as a safekeeper of particular points in history.

The Hindiya Barrage, although equated to the Aswan Low Dam in newspapers, was also influenced by Willcock’s desires to revive Mesopotamia. The notion that he could revive Eden within ancient lands captured him, so much so that when he retired after the construction of the Hindiya Barrage, he published a book in 1919 entitled From the Garden of Eden to the Valleys of Jordan <ozden_pontifex_2014>.

The differences in outcomes of the Aswan Low Dam and the Hindiya barrage arises out of the level of influence the British engineers held over the dams. The engineers of Aswan Low Dam ignored previous attempts at controlling the flow of the Nile <cook_engineering_2013>, and built a dam that needed to be raised multiple times, and was the root of the 1942 food shortage pg. 40. The Hindiya Barrage, on the other hand, was a replacement for a crumbling rubble dam, which meant that there was no opportunity for the engineers to ignore the past. The success of the Hindiya Barrage, fully functional until it was replaced in 1989, is indicative of the value of learning from previous irrigation attempts.

If the Aswan Low Dam and the Hindiya Barrage are reflections of how the British empire saw the states of Egypt and Iraq through primordialism, then irrigation projects post-independence were reflections of a state attempting to build a future that distinguished the rural past and the urban future. The Aswan High Dam, and the urbanization boom of the city of Aswan, was enmeshed with Nasserism’s desire to valorize the state. Sealing of the past through both metaphorical and physical means, the Aswan High Dam itself was meant as an example in Egypt.

The Kut Barrage foreshadowed the arrival of American influenced land resettlement projects, such as the failed Dujayla project. While the Dujayla project failed spectacularly, its failures can be traced not only to the influence of American technocrats during the Cold War era, but even further back to the 1933 Law Governing Rights and Duties of Cultivators. This law, which was passed right as the Kut Barrage broke ground in 1934, increased the potential for profits for irrigation pump owners and landholders, incentivizing them to irrigate their lands. As a result, this created a top-down model of irrigation development, which would later lead to the failure of the Dujayla project.

Ultimately, these four irrigation projects can be separated into two distinct periods. Irrigation projects before the fall of the Ottoman Empire were symbols looking towards the past, reflecting primordialist tendencies. The oversight of British engineers on these projects, combined with the relative free-hand given to them by the British government and the Young Turks, allowed for the construction of irrigation projects whose builders believed they were succeeding an ancient legacy. Irrigation projects following independence, in contrast, were nationalist symbols of the future, sealing away the past while it promised an urban future with a remade rural class.

The Aswan Low Dam and the Hindiya Barrage

The building of the Aswan Low Dam and the Hindiya Barrage were both born out of the same primordialist tendencies. Technocratic desires for a more agriculturally productive Egypt provided British engineers a chance to impact Egyptian history, marking the birth and development of the Aswan Low Dam. Specifically, the discussion and framing of the Aswan Low Dam were centered around the dreams of British engineers to succeed the developments of the Pharaonic era. Eventually, as the work of Timothy Mitchell and others have shown, this type of top-down development, with a focus on the past and ancient civilizations rather than the realistic needs of the inhabitants would lead to disastrous results for the Aswan Low Dam. In contrast, the Hindiya Barrage was far more successful, particularly because it managed to shy away from the same type of development.

Constructed between 1899 and 1902 and designed by Sir William Willcocks, the Aswan Low Dam was intended to manage the seasonal flooding of the Nile. Notably, the desire to increase cotton production in Egypt was a primary driver of the construction <noauthor_power_1913>. Foreign import bans of cotton, alongside massive foreign capital and financial investment made the Egyptian cotton economy extremely developed, despite a complete lack of more industrialized forms of farming <hansen_egypt_1975>. This lack of industrial productivity, coupled with the large population, formed the impetus for the Aswan Low Dam.

However, one curiosity seized the feelings of the public: the Temple of Philae. A culturally relevant temple located on a small island within the Nile, the temple of Philae was immediately tied to the Aswan Low Dam. The building of the dam would create a reservoir behind it, threatening to submerge the temple itself. Thus, debates on the height of the Aswan Low Dam were thrust into the public sphere, with discourse eventually reaching to Winston Churchill, who wrote a letter to Willcocks that “expressed the sentiments of the public on the lowering of the [Aswan Low] dam to save the Philae temple from annual immersion” pg. 27. Willcocks further points out “the height of the dam and the vexed question of the Philae temple” pg. 7, noting the question of the temple drew multitudes of opinions, from “savants and antiquaries, many who were not savants and antiquaries’’ as well as the international commission within Egypt, alongside the Egyptian government itself pg. 2. The agreed upon solution was to place the dam at a height that would leave the temple partially submerged.

However, demand for additional water caused the Aswan Low Dam to be raised by 5 meters in 1910-1912, and another 9 meters was added between 1930-1933. Willcocks would later critique the raisings of the dam in 1919 stating that the insufficient water supply invited further problems <cook_engineering_2013>.

In a lecture at the Khedivial geographical dedicated to reviewing the Aswan Low Dam in 1904, Willcocks shows no hesitation in mixing historical references alongside his technical work. He repeatedly cites the importance of his work with irrigation regulators in conjunction with historical references about Joseph’s arrival in Egypt pg. 23. A sizable chunk of this lecture is dedicated to a recollection of history around Joseph, Egyptian pharaohs, and Theban kings, before returning to abruptly lurching back to statistics about the cultivable area surrounding Lake Morris. Curiously, the lecture itself spends little time dwelling on the current residents of the Aswan Low Dam or of Lake Moeris.

Why did the British public, all the way up a member of parliament, express concern about an Egyptian temple thousands of miles away, built as part of an irrigation project meant to maximize the output of Egyptian cotton? Why did Willcocks flit between history and statistics within his lecture? A dam born out of a sheer economic desire had its economic impacts dulled by cultural desires, in an era not especially noted for its concerns. At its core, the primordialist conceptions of Egyptian history lay at the root of these questions.

For Egypt, the temple of Philae is a rallying point for British primordialism, since it is assumed that the Egyptians in the early 1900’s are derivatives of the ancient pharaonic civilizations. The lack of references to the Egyptians inhabiting the areas around the Aswan Low Dam are simply fait accompli, and require no consideration. Willcocks himself never denies the necessity of the preservation of the Philae temple, he merely takes offense at the idea that he had not constructed an adequate preservation mechanism vis-a-vis a lower dam height. If the Egyptian past is set in stone as a pharaonic civilization, the role of the British is to birth a future via statistics and development projects. From the British perspective, the Egyptians were not worth mentioning because they had no agency, as they existed merely as a line between the two dots of pharaonic history and British guided techno-politics. This notion had significant buy in from the public as well, demonstrating their concern for a temple thousands of miles away.

Ignoring the local needs and patterns of the local Egyptians lead to disastrous results. Willcocks foreshadows problems with the insufficient water supply upon reflection 17 years later, but the major problem was the lack of foresight on the Nile flooding patterns. By damming the Nile, only one-fifth of the former plains continued to be naturally fertilized via silt deposits. The other four-fifths required fertilizer, with 80 percent of the Egyptian supply controlled by an international cartel. The 1942 food shortage was directly caused by this realignment to using fertilizer, as fertilizer supplies became constrained when war broke out, inducing large numbers of casualties due to food supplies and a malaria epidemic pg. 40.

In 1875, Midhat Pasha, the Vali of Baghdad, decided to close the Saklawia Canal on account of its gradual decay to become unnavigable <great_britain_iraq_2014>. However, as a result of its closing, approximately 750 cubic meters of water per second flooded into the main Euphrates river, exacerbating the seasonal floods from March to May. Further downstream, where the Euphrates splits into two branches, the Hindiya and Hilla, began to experience sentiment deposit issues. As the eastern-facing Hilla branch lay on higher ground than the western-facing Hindiya branch, extra water diverted from the Saklawia Canal caused additional sentiment deposit at the river juncture, threatening to clog the Hilla branch and rendering it unusable. As this area was fertile ground for date palms <money_hindiya_1917>, the Ottoman Government decided to build a rubble dam across the Hindiya branch in order to divert more water flow towards the Hilla branch. However, in 1908, the state of the rubble dam had decayed to the point where the Ottoman government solicited outside advice.

Flush off of his success in the Aswan Low Dam, William Willcocks was hired in light of the Young Turk large public work programs <money_hindiya_1917>. Utilizing the staff he built during his years in Egypt, Willcocks constructed a new Hindiya barrage, creating two artificial lakes for the excess water: lake Habbaniya and Lake Abu Dilis. Willcocks brought alongside the same notions he had of the Aswan Low Dam, with the same keen interest in history. His book, the Recreation of Chaldea, paints a picture of grand irrigation works from Nebuchadnezzar to Persian kings <ozden_pontifex_2014>. With the Hindiya Barrage imagined as the equivalent of the Aswan Low Dam, Willocks approached the Hindiya Barrage with the same mixture of primordial belief about civilization in Iraq as he had in Egypt.

Evaluations of the Hindiya barrage paint it in an exceedingly glowing light, similar to the evaluations of the Aswan Low Dam. Royal Naval handbooks claim the Hindiya barrage is the “first great modern work” within Iraq <great_britain_iraq_2014> pg 434, placing it alongside the Kut Barrage and the Diyala weir. Malaria had almost completely been eliminated as a side effect of the additional flowing water <officials_introduction_1946-1>, and the barrage saw continual usage until 1989 <bin_huwaidin_chinas_2002>.

Ultimately, the reason why the Hindiya Barrage was far more successful than the Aswan Low Dam in achieving its goals was that Hindiya Barrage was built off of an existing need. Even though both irrigation projects were considered to be equivalent by the British public <ozden_pontifex_2014> and were built from the same primordialist biases, the previous existence of the old rubble dam constructed by the Ottoman government meant that the needs of the local inhabitants were already built into the Hindiya Barrage project. Rather than attempting to fit the desires of the archaeologists, the British public, and a whole host of other desires, the Hindiya Barrage was more focused on simply creating a functional replacement for the rubble dam, making it far more successful in its goals.

The Aswan High Dam and the Kut Barrage

The construction of the Tennessee Valley Authority provided a model that was emulated across the world <biswas_development_2001>. These dams served dual roles, simultaneously serving as nationalist symbols while also sources for state building via the separation of the urban and the rural. In particular, the development of the Aswan High Dam and the construction boom in the city of Aswan in Egypt fused with Nasserism’s idiosyncrasies to help legitimize the state, while the Kut Barrage and the Dujayla Land project helped exacerbate an urban/rural divide.

Dams within Egypt took on a strict political light following 1956. The nationalization of the Suez Canal, supposedly for the purposes of replacing World Bank loans for the construction of dams <reynolds_city_2017>, signaled a shift from rooting development projects in ancient civilizations to rooting them in American technocratic ideals. It was believed that the adoption of American models would transform practices that had formed during the colonial period and set nations upon a more self-sufficient path.

The Aswan High Dam was one of the first major projects of this new era. First proposed by Gamal Abdul Nasser and born out of Cold War dynamics, the literature surrounding the Aswan High Dam is invariably tainted with political motives. Originally due to be funded by the United States, Nasser’s alliance with India in forming the non-aligned movement caused the United States to withdraw funding, prompting the Soviet Union to step in in 1959. This has politicized discussions around the Aswan High Dam, to a point where there are significant communities around anti-dam and pro-dam developments.

Yoav DiCapua describes Nasserism and its associated projects as having “a constant need for public demonstration of its achievements. It was exhibitionist” pg. 294. In line with this, not only was the lake created by the dam named after Nasser, the Aswan High Dam also aimed to achieve a massive set of goals: from “full control of the Nile south of the Aswan”, to “generalization of cheap and clean hydroelectric power”, along with changing the then-current system of basin irrigation to perennial irrigation allowing for two crops a year <abu-zeid_egypts_1997>. The famed singer Abdel Halim Hafez composed a song called “The High Dam ‘’, which was broadcasted across Egypt on state-run channels <reynolds_city_2017>. The complete absorption of the Aswan High Dam into popular culture simultaneously legitimized the Egyptian regime, even as the dam was financed and designed by the Soviet Union. The creation of Lake Nasser provides a de facto boundary between Egypt and Sudan, both physically and metaphorically representing a break from the Anglo-Egyptian condominium over Sudan.

At the same time as the construction of the dam, the city of Aswan grew at a frenetic pace between 1950 and 1960 <reynolds_city_2017>. The explosion of new housing settlements to accommodate construction workers led to a massive population boom. State funded roads and tourist centers, and an active page of archeological excavation lead to a steady stream of students and tourists in the summer months. The Nubian Museum and the Aga Khan mausoleum accompanied these developments, and helped to root the city of Aswan and the Aswan High Dam both in the national psyche <reynolds_city_2017>.

The development of the city of Aswan and the Aswan High Dam were departures from the construction of the Aswan Low Dam. While the Aswan Low Dam was thought by the British to spiritually succeed ancient Egypt, the excavations and museums marked the opposite. Construction of museums and placing them for the view of tourists allows for the clean definition of what is considered “the past”. The towering structure of the Aswan High Dam, compared to the neatly catalogued historical artifacts within museums, provides for a potent nationalist symbol. Egypt was no longer hoped to relive the glory days of the past, but rather had sealed and left it behind while constructing a new future. Even colonial legacies, such as the Anglo-Egytpian condominium over Sudan, which ended in 1956, were to be neatly delineated by Lake Nasser. Through the active role the state played in the construction of the dam, as well as the “exebehitionist” tendencies of Nasserism, the state was able to tie its popularity to the popularity of the dam.

Maturation under the Iraqi state fell along similar lines as well. At the start of the Cold War, American style influences, especially molded after the notions of independence and self sufficiency began to take hold, beginning with the Dujayla land project pg. 127. However, these notions did not come from a strictly Cold War perspective, but rather had their roots in the construction of the Kut Barrage, which started in 1934 and completed in 1939. While specific features of the Dujayla land project would be molded by UN institutions with heavy American influence, ideas about self sufficiency along the Tigris would be seeded with the Kut Barrage.

Originally proposed by William Willcocks during the construction of the Hindiya Barrage as a counterpart on the Tigris, the Kut Barrage remains the oldest continually functioning barrage along a main river in Iraq <abdullah_water_nodate-1>. At the time, the ancient canal of Shatt al-Gharraf, which links the cities of Kut and Nasiriyah, had flooding issues, preventing the vast tracts of land alongside the canal from being used for farming <noauthor_kut_1939>. Described as returning the canal to “the course of the main Tigris channel during the Islamic Era more than 1,000 years ago” by a journalist <podsiadlo_tigris_1966>, the barrage was completed in 1939, with the intention of supporting larger land reform projects in the future. At the start of the Cold War, the Dujayla land project was one of them.

While the birth of the Kut Barrage began with William Willcocks, the 1933 Law Governing the Rights and Duties of Cultivators was the cornerstone. Previously, a patchwork of Ottoman-era land laws divided land types into three different classifications, mostly held within the hands of the tribal sheikhs and urban landlords. However, following the 1933 Law, land ownership was extended to irrigation pump owners in the case of default by the land cultivators <kiyotaki_ottoman_2019>. In addition, the “law granted pump owners, lazma holders, and leaseholders full rights over decisions relating to production, including the choice of crops, choice of seeds (kinds and hybrids), water supply, harvesting, marketing, as well as the hiring of outside labor” <haj_making_1997>. This meant that, once the Kut Barrage was finished and the Shatt al-Gharraf irrigated, the subsequent pump owners, who were mostly wealthy and urban pg. 275, along the Shatt al-Gharraf would hold significant power over the peasants of the newly irrigated land.

Ultimately, this type of reform exacerbated the rural/urban divide and helped to drive land resettlement projects. The ambition of these land resettlement programs reflect the socioeconomic state of Iraq, which had experienced significant budget surpluses due to increased oil revenues <adams_pre-revolutionary_1963-1>. Top down modernization schemes were devised, such as those used in the Dujayla land project, and were largely driven by foreign and international expertise pg. 131. The notion that the rural peasants desperately needed to be modernized stemmed from land reform laws, which reduced the agency of the rural peasants. This made it such that, when viewed from a foreign perspective, the rural peasants were uneducated and needed teaching, when in fact they were shackled under a series of complex land reform laws. In addition, pump owners and landowners sought to make large capital gains from increases in the value of the land through irrigation schemes pg. 242. This combination of a foreign conception that rural peasants were undereducated and unaware of their needs, together with a class that desired higher returns on their land via foriegn investment created the conditions for failure in the Dujayla project.

These new attempts at remaking the rural class speak to the desires of the Iraqi state, and the gestation for these projects began with the Kut Barrage. The significance of this is born out by the opening of the Kut Barrage, the last public event King Ghazi of Iraq attended before his death. Speaking to how his father held an interest in the barrage <noauthor_king_nodate>, this event would occur again over eighty years later, with President Barham Salih’s visit <masum_president_nodate>. These visits speak to the barrage’s symbolic value for the future, with both heads of state visiting only a few years after significant political turmoil.

The similarities between the Kut Barrage and the Dujayla land project to the Aswan Low Dam and its aftereffects are notable. Both projects were driven in an explicit top-down model that favored ideals over realities on the ground. The failure of the Dujayla project lay in the salinization and outbreak of disease, both of which were determined and understood in the early years by UN technocrats pg. 127. Despite early warnings, the desire for a cohesive family unit that was self sustaining prevented project workers from intervening. As a result, the Dujayla land project collapsed only a few years later. Likewise, issues with raising the Aswan Low Dam were foreseen by Willcocks in 1919 <cook_engineering_2013>. In undervaluing the historical experiences, both imperial narratives from the British and technocratic narratives from the US lead UN process would cause both projects to fall apart.


Irrigation provides a dearth of knowledge, and provides a useful lens for the evaluation of nationalism. The massive capital needs draw upon a diverse set of individuals that reflect many aspects of the ruling state, from the politicians to the engineers. The secondary effects of dams, hand-in-hand with the secondary effects of a massive capital injection, shows us how these ideas are reflected on the ground, and provides a testing ground for the durability of nationalism. The development of the Aswan Low Dam and the Hindiya Barrage, the two “great works” of irrigation that occured at near the turn of the century, shows the devastating effects of primordial and orientalist biases if not tempered by historical experience. The Aswan High Dam and the Kut Barrage provide an insight to how the state used these large infrastructure projects to memorialize the past and shape the future. Irrigation projects are useful case studies in understanding how disparate groups of technocrats, aristocrats, and citizens affect and interpret state driven modernization.