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

  • Citation: Barnes, Jessica. “States of Maintenance: Power, Politics, and Egypt’s Irrigation Infrastructure.” EPD: Society and Space 35, no. 1 (June 24, 2016).
    • Topics:
    • Regional Studies
    • Keywords:
    • maintenance
    • infrastructure
    • the state
    • irrigation
    • Egypt

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.

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