Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

States of Maintenance: Power, Politics, and Egypt's Irrigation Infrastructure

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

States of Maintenance: Power, Politics, and Egypt's Irrigation Infrastructure

Article excerpt

Abstract

Egypt's irrigation infrastructure comprises a vast network of dams, canals, offtakes, and ditches, which direct water from the Nile throughout the Nile Valley and Delta to millions of farmers who rely on that water to cultivate their land. In this paper, I focus on the vital work of maintenance, which keeps this infrastructure functioning and the water flowing. Yet rather than taking maintenance as an inherent good, I look critically at what exactly is being maintained. I contrast two forms of canal maintenance: first, the work that Egypt's Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation conducts, mostly during an annual maintenance period; second, the maintenance that farmers conduct on an everyday basis. State-led maintenance, I argue, is as much about reasserting state authority over the irrigation system as it is about fixing problems within the system. The unsung maintenance of irrigation ditches by farmers, on the other hand, is not only about cleaning ditches but also building communal relations among farmers that are key to the delivery of the water on which they depend. Focusing attention on the decision-making processes around maintenance reveals the variegated outcomes of this work and how it maintains not only the material but also social order.

Keywords

Maintenance, infrastructure, the state, irrigation, Egypt

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The excavator sits beside a canal. Bright yellow in color, it stands out against the green fields of rural Egypt and the blue-gray of the irrigation canal. One man operates the controls; another stands alongside. The excavator's long arm reaches in, tugs, wobbles, and pulls up its load: thick black dirt, clumps of weeds, some plastic bags and bottles. It dumps the detritus on the bank and returns to scrape away at the belly of the canal. It is June 2014 and I am driving through the countryside of Fayoum Province in northern Egypt. The excavator is working slowly, but as I move along the canal I can see the progress it has made. Ridges of mud, torn stalks of weeds, and garbage, maybe a meter or so in height, are piled beside the canal, slowly drying in the sun. Where the excavator has worked, the canal is clear, the water flowing freely. Where it has yet to operate, the canal is so thick with a dense mat of big green-leaved weeds that you cannot see the surface.

The site appears unremarkable to the man I am traveling with, who makes no comment. Yet this machine is performing work of profound social, economic, and political significance. By clearing the canal, the excavator is facilitating the flow of water from the Nile down the canal to farmers who rely on that water to irrigate their fields. Indeed the direction and speed of flow is closely tied to the presence--or absence--of such work. A blockage, broken weir, or collapsed bank can all interrupt the water's passage, potentially jeopardizing downstream farmers' fields and livelihoods. The excavator, along with a host of other human and nonhuman actors in and around Egypt's irrigation network, is conducting the vital work of infrastructure maintenance.

Recent years have seen a flourishing of literature on infrastructure, from municipal water supplies and roads to cybernetworks and media technologies (e.g. Anand, 2012; Appel, 2012; Carse, 2012; Edwards et al., 2009; Harvey and Knox, 2012; Larkin, 2008). This work has drawn attention to the material natures of these networks that deliver not only services, goods, and people but also power, hope, and ideas (Larkin, 2013). Relating to this broader interest in infrastructure, there has been a growing body of work on maintenance and repair (as well as its converse, the absence of maintenance or disrepair, e.g. Chu, 2014; Schwenkel, 2015). (1) As Ashley Carse (2014) points out, infrastructures, far from being fixed, are in a constant process of flux; "They require human communities to maintain them, even as they shape those (and other) communities. …

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