Cultivating the Nile: An Interview with Jessica Barnes

Cultivating the Nile_CoverCultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt

By Jessica Barnes, University of South Carolina

248pp. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. §

Colin Hoag (UC Santa Cruz and Aarhus University) spoke with Prof. Jessica Barnes about her recent book on the culture and politics of water management in Egypt.



For Engagement readers who have not yet read your book, could you give us a short synopsis of the book’s content and argument?

The book is about the everyday politics of water distribution and use in Egypt. Accounts of water in the Nile Basin often focus on the transboundary dimensions of this river, which is shared by 11 countries, and on the political conflicts that have arisen over international treaty negotiations and large dam projects. My book presents an alternative view of these water politics, building on ethnographic work with farmers, irrigation engineers, policymakers, and international donors in Egypt. Drawing attention to day-to-day practices of blocking, releasing, channeling, and diverting water, which take place on a variety of scales, I show how the waters of the Nile are constantly made and remade as a resource. I argue that it is in these quotidian practices, which shape how much and what kind of water different people are able to access, that some of the most significant political contestation actually lies.


Could you tell us a bit about how you came to this particular project?

Originally I wanted to do my PhD research in Syria. I was interested in a tributary to the Euphrates, the Khabour River, which over the past few decades has largely dried up, and wanted to research the impact of these changes on local populations. After spending two summers doing pre-season fieldwork in Syria, however, it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be possible to do rural-based fieldwork in northeastern Syria. Egypt was a natural choice for an alternative fieldwork site, as part of another major transboundary river basin, which also has a long agricultural history. At that point in time, Egypt was also one of the slightly easier countries in the Middle East to conduct research.


I’d be interested to hear about how you conceived of the study design. What prompted your methodological focus?

From the outset, I knew that I wanted to couple village-based ethnography with fieldwork that would capture the multiple scales, sites, and spaces of water management. I was lucky to meet several people during my first research visit to Egypt who helped me establish my fieldwork sites. Two academics in Cairo helped me identify a village in Fayoum, a few hours southwest of the city, where it would be feasible for me to live for a year, and assisted me with making initial connections with farming households and finding somewhere to live. A meeting with the manager of a donor-funded project, which was working out of the regional irrigation directorate in Fayoum City on a project to establish water user associations, also proved very fortuitous. She agreed that I could be affiliated with the project, so for the main stretch of my fieldwork in 2007-8, I spent half my time in the village where I lived and half my time in the project offices. This allowed me to observe how the donor-driven drive towards participatory water management in Egypt is playing out in practice (the focus of one of the chapters in the book). But moreover, it allowed me to access some of the inner workings of the government bureaucracy responsible for water management – to attend meetings, workshops, and training sessions in the irrigation ministry and to accompany engineers and project staff on canal inspections and to meetings with farmers around the province. Finally, I conducted participant observation at a set of international water management conferences, as part of my interest in understanding how water in Egypt is tied to larger circulations of management paradigms, funding, and expertise.

One of my goals in conducting this research was to put the water at the center of the analysis. To do this, I really wanted to understand where the water I was looking at comes from, and how it moves through space and time. So I read a lot of literature on hydrology, agriculture, and irrigation engineering, talked a great deal with my informants about these kinds of “technical” details, and sought to incorporate this information in my writing. I come from an interdisciplinary background and while my data were entirely qualitative – I wasn’t out recording flows or measuring water quality! – I think that one thing an interdisciplinary perspective can bring to an ethnographic analysis is a clear appreciation of the “natural” processes that both shape and are shaped by social relations.

The Nile at Aswan. Photo by Jessica Barnes.
The Nile at Aswan. Photo by Jessica Barnes.

Scale features prominently in your analysis. Is this because you feel that water demands a particular attention to matters of scale? Or is it because of the nature of water in your field site?

One of my starting points for thinking about this project was a sense that there had been something missing from previous work on the Nile, which has largely focused on a singular scale of analysis – the international – often ignoring other scales, in particular what is going on in the fields with farmers, who are those who actually use the vast majority of Nile water. So yes, I do strongly believe that looking across multiple scales is really important for understanding water, not just in my fieldsite but in general. I also think that consideration of local-regional-national-global intersections (while also recognizing the constructed nature of those scales) is an important approach within environmental anthropology, more broadly. In my current work on wheat, bread, and food security in Egypt, for example, I’m applying the same multi-scaled approach, linking national agricultural policies and international grain markets with day-to-day acts of cultivating wheat, grinding flour, and consuming bread.


You explain in Chapter 4 that, unlike land dispossession, water diversion represents a subtle kind of dispossession. Farmers might be unable to plant what crops they choose—or perhaps they cannot plant at all. But the water goes elsewhere, meaning that diversion always makes winners and losers. In a sense, your book in large part is about these contests over water resources, whether through signification, accounting, or allocation. Could you elaborate on these politics of water diversion and what implications they have for the people you spoke with?

Yes, I think this question of how water is being diverted and who gets it lies at the heart of the book. These politics do, indeed, have huge implications for farmers who are entirely dependent on irrigation water for their livelihoods in the absence of any rainfall to speak of (most of Egypt receives less than an inch of rain a year). Over the course of my fieldwork, both in conversations with farmers and in meetings I observed between farmers and irrigation engineers, farmers expressing that they do not have enough water to grow the number or type of crops that they’d like to, was a consistent theme. Often, farmers were quite desperate. At the same time, there are of course the winners – some farmers who are even able to grow water-thirsty crops like rice.

The Nile, Egypt. Photo by Jessica Barnes.
The Nile, Egypt. Photo by Jessica Barnes.

The Nile is such an iconic site for thinking about water management, from flood measurement and management to annual cycles of agriculture and flooding. Did you ever find that scholarly or lay historiography to be a burden? That is, did you ever feel as though it made it difficult for you to approach the material on your own terms, as the scene presented itself to you? Or was it merely a resource?

When I was first working on Syria, there was something nice about doing research in a country that had not been the subject of so much scholarly analysis. But when I switched my research site to Egypt, it was great to have such a rich body of work to use as a resource, particularly to learn more about the history of water in Egypt and the Nile Basin. This never really felt like a burden, largely because I felt that with my contemporary and ethnographic focus I was approaching these issues from quite a different perspective.


On account of being engaged in other important debates, your book does not engage directly with Karl Wittfogel’s (1957) famous assertion that the demands of water management in Asia led to the development of a powerful bureaucracy and, subsequently, a centralized state. Wittfogel’s argument elicited important critiques from Lansing (1992) and others, who showed how local-scale organization based in, for example, ritual practices can sustain regional-scale water management systems. But I was thinking about the debate while reading your book. You describe how efforts to use and control water at local and larger scales give rise to a particular conception of water and, at the same time, a particular political geography of water. These efforts are not merely top-down, however, as in Wittfogel. Instead, everyday people are demanding water and shaping the ways that it is allocated. Could you tell us how you see your material in relation to these works?

I wasn’t so interested in making an argument about the state in the book, in part because there is already such a wealth of literature on this topic, and in part because I didn’t feel it would necessarily advance my analysis. The people I engaged with during my fieldwork didn’t talk about “the state.” They talked about “The Irrigation” (al-rai), by which they meant the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation; “The Responsible” (al-mas’ool), by which they mean those in higher position of power to make decisions; “the engineer” (al-muhandis), by which they meant the district engineer; “The Above” (al-fouq), by which they meant farmers at the head ends of the canals who receive water first; “the projects” (al-masharic) by which they meant internationally financed interventions. So I preferred to start with these terms and think about what they said about the complex political and power-laden relationships that shape water management in Egypt, rather than structuring my analysis around a state-local dichotomy, which I felt would elide some of these complexities.

In terms of Lansing’s book, this is one of my favorite works and was very influential to my thinking when I read it during my graduate studies. However during my fieldwork, I didn’t find religion or ritual to be a prominent theme. Religion did come up occasionally – for instance when people evoked Islam in their arguments against the government introducing charges for water – but it didn’t seem to play a prominent part in daily practices of irrigation water management (in domestic realms of water use this might be different, but this was not a focus of my work).


Your fieldwork took place largely prior to the Arab Spring, which saw several changes of government in Egypt. Are you aware of any changes to the processes you studied since then? At a more general level, what relationship exists between the water practices you describe and national politics?

I have conducted several periods of fieldwork in Egypt since the Arab Spring, but haven’t had much access to the Ministry of Water since I completed the main body of fieldwork for this project (in 2007-9). So I am a bit cautious about how much I can say about the post-Arab Spring situation. However, my sense is that not all that much has changed. I think there is probably quite a time lag between shifts in national politics, ministries introducing new policies, and changes on the ground. The political instability has also led to frequent changes in ministerial leadership – there have been five new Ministers of Water since 2011 – which people have told me has limited new policy development and implementation. There have been some notable developments in this period, though, namely Ethiopia’s decision in 2011 to start building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which provides the majority of the Nile flow. When I gave a series of talks on my book in Egypt in June 2014, the dam was a prominent source of discussion and concern among both the farmers and the government officials who I met with.


What is the most promising trend that you see in the literature on water studies and the anthropology of water today?

I have been really excited by the increasing material focus within much of the recent literature on water. I love reading work that not only gives rich ethnographic detail of how different people are using, managing, manipulating, sensing, talking about, and perceiving water but also the pumps, pipes, valves, taps, dams, and water meters that mediate their interactions with water.


Thanks so much for your thoughts and for this wonderful book!

Jessica Barnes is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and the School of the Earth, Ocean, and Environment at the University of South Carolina. Her work focuses on the culture and politics of resource use and environmental change in the Middle East. Her publications include Climate Cultures: Anthropological Perspectives on Climate Change (co-edited with Michael R. Dove, 2015) and articles in a number of peer reviewed journals including Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Critique of Anthropology, Social Studies of Science, and Geoforum. Her current project draws on ethnographic and archival work to examine the longstanding and widespread identification of food security in Egypt with self-sufficiency in wheat and bread.