Fluid Entities: Reconstructed Notions of Water, the State, and Sovereignty
We are often told that the next war will be centered around water. This narrative delineates a natural source’s existence to a zero-sum entity that catalyzes violent conflict, neglecting to account for the materiality of the very element in “dispute.” In the context of the Middle East, depictions of the region as purely desert terrain, plagued by conflict over scarce resources, simplifies natural elements in terms of scarcity and places them at the center of a geopolitical paradigm that emphasizes territorialization, hegemony, and energy. This nexus underscores conveniently crafted histories and futures, contributing to a categorization of Middle Eastern countries as “failed states,” embroiled in perpetual clashes and ensconced in barbarianism. This typification of the region and the terrain fashions exclusionary dynamics that are veiled by turbulent natural elements. Yet, it is the very uncontrollable, flowing nature of water that renders it irrational to discuss solely in terms of state relations and hegemony. Rather than relegating water to an entity that strikes fear and determines life or death, how can we consider water an active participant in our relationships with the state and a lens through which to unpack understandings of citizenship? Furthermore, when citizens begin to realize the inequality in access to water, the infrastructure and public services that they pay for through their taxes as discriminatory, how is their perception of the nation-state’s authority and legitimacy altered? In order to approach such questions, a biopolitical analysis of water and its role in statehood will ensue, leading to a discussion of alternative sovereignties that emerge from newfound understandings of water.
Biopolitical Nature of Water
In order to begin to grasp water’s contradictory nature, its ability to both connect and divide, to be manipulated through discourse and narrative, one must look at it through the micro-scale, in terms of its interrelations with humans and the body. It is the manipulation of water’s materiality, which allows it to be categorized as both scarce and abundant, that renders it political, and leads it to play a crucial role in current political affairs. Critical for the sustenance of life and ecology, water holds both spiritual and aesthetic importance whilst also crucial to processes of industrialization and urbanization.1 The notion that water is a resource vital to life is unavoidable, but it is important to consider how water also engenders various human attempts to regulate it, despite its inherent variability.2
Foucault’s notion of biopower is at the crux of water relations, as this form of power is exercised on both general categories of population (such as the nation) and individual bodies. Biopower impacts a population’s quality of life, and illustrates a shift in focus from territory and territorial power to human control and biopolitics.3 Foucault asserts that there is no central site where power can be located, but rather it is dispersed amongst the social body, inherently rendering it relational. The exercise of biopower depends on the positions of the individuals in relation to the community, such as occupier vs. occupied, and how each individual reinscribes themselves within the fabric of power or beyond its reaches.4 This understanding of power relations is most meaningful in contexts where knowledge can be produced, reframed, problematized, and resisted. Environmental narratives that are constructed by various actors, with the aim of classifying and organizing nature through the production of discursive categories based in “fact,” are constitutive of power relations.5
It is through Foucault’s notion of biopolitics that state theory’s focus on territorial power fades away as the most salient issue for modern politics and the concern on human element emerges. The individual and the population, rather than the territory itself, become the objects and targets of power and thus threats to the nation-state’s existence begin to come from within the state itself.6 One must begin to understand the state beyond territorial concepts and rather focus on its ability to rearrange socio-natural environments with its control of nature and citizenry.7 The ability to do so is a means of demonstrating the strength of the modern state, for states are made through the process of mapping, bounding, containing, and controlling both nature and citizenry. The state inherently consists of everyday social interactions and experiences and thus can be understood through how it chooses to interact with, and construct ideas of, its citizenry.8 Thus, narratives are crucial in state formation, for the nation emerges through the telling of stories and the production of accounts that necessitate state power. States are thus never formed “once and for all” but are rather constantly being formed as an ongoing project.9
The production and selective distribution of modern water supply reinforce both discursive and political divisions between populations, spaces, and waters, which then become entrenched within the landscape through oppressive and exclusive water supply infrastructure. Infrastructures facilitate the control of the body in that they not only represent state power to citizens, but also encompass a series of socio-physical processes that alter previous constructions of nature and produce new “technonatures” that entangle and maintain social, political, and natural environments.10 In short, within the context of water in particular (though applicable to other biopolitical resources too), what appears as nature is, in fact, already shaped by forms of power, technology, expertise, and privilege. Combined with the narratives surrounding infrastructure, bodies of water and the technologies that adorn them become constitutive of the power relations that emerge, develop, and stabilize between countries and communities.
Discussions on the modern state have been traditionally concerned with territorialization, in the sense that the strength of the state was seen to lie in the fact that its territory was defined, articulated and protected. The legitimacy of the state is therefore derived from its ability to protect external threats to its territory and sovereignty. The latter being, implies a territorial expression of the nation state itself. Water, as discussed, defies this approach. Yet, water is utilized in state building discourses in order to imply a link between a people, a land, and the state.
The State, Water and Citizenry
Although many Weberian state theorists point to military and socioeconomic policies as the main facilitator behind the consolidation of the territoriality of the state, the construction of the Israeli state demonstrates how water politics, such as debates surrounding river basins, appropriate management, and the fabrication of hydrological knowledge, contribute to the establishment of the settler nation-state.11 In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the official Israeli narrative emphasized a need to establish property and sovereignty rights over Palestine’s water, among other resources.12 David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, adopted a religious discourse to emphasize the need for a sovereign status over the natural resources.
Ben-Gurion ties water and land to the idea of nationhood, rightful ownership, and religious prophecy. Such claims to the land insinuate a religious and dogmatic right to not only the state but also the resources it produces. By assigning a religious duty, a holy mission, to one particular religion and subset of people, the relationship between a land and a people is no longer shaped by habitation but rather reserved for a special group who have rights to a holy land and the duty to fulfill a prophetic relationship. Through such discourse, rights to land access and resource transcend physical dimensions and intertwine with ideological claims.
The “co-mingling with the landscape” manifested itself in The Israeli National Water Carrier Project, which aimed to divert the upper Jordan River from a point in the demilitarized zone with Syria to the northern reaches of the Negev desert. In doing so, Israel would establish its sovereignty over the Jordan River and the demilitarized zone, as well as facilitate Jewish immigration in the Negev by providing water for irrigation. In 1953, the project was halted for a number of reasons including Syrian objections and a United Nations initiative to negotiate a water development agreement between Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. In the time period between 1953 and 1956, up until the project was resumed, the personal envoy of the President of the United States, Eric Johnston, negotiated the water share of the river with the states. One of his proposals was a monitoring mechanism that would ensure that each party would receive the agreed-upon water share of the river. However, Israel rejected the proposal outright, declaring that the mechanism would be an interference with sovereignty over the river, which they considered to be an Israeli river.13 Additionally, the US distanced itself from Johnston’s initial position, which held that the Jordan River must be used to satisfy the needs of the Jordan River watershed area (a subsection of land that contains a shared set of streams and rivers that all drain into a larger body of water) and that it should not be transferred out of it. Yet Israel insisted that the distribution should be based on states rather than on the needs of the watershed area. This is a direct violation of the customary law of river basins and emphasizes sovereignty and modern state borders. Israel’s proposal was that states should have a sovereign right to the use of water in whatever manner they deem fit, even if that required the transferring of water out of the watershed area. Thus during this time period Israel exhibited a great concern for establishing its property rights and exercising sovereign power over water resources.14Although the state is an abstraction, its need to be “watered,” strengthened, is prioritized over the needs of the land itself. For water to be transferred out of its main source, debilitating its original environment, is not only counter intuitive but counter to natural arrangements. Land, and its vitality, is deprioritized in order to solidify a modern concept that hinges on the domination and submission of both the body and nature.
By framing the discourse as one of statehood and state rights, Israel claimed legitimacy to centralize water institutions and discuss water management in the context of national-territorial terms. Ben-Gurion’s notion of mamlakhtiyut, often translated as statism, is at the crux of Israeli identity politics, which propelled the idea that the fulfillment of Jewish subjectivity is only possible through the support of a strong state.15 The previously hailed idea of an abundant land was replaced with that of scarcity, paving the way for the use of centralized institutions. When the vitality of the state was seen to be at risk, there was no place for local management and no place for inefficiency. Scarcity not only justified a strong state in terms of water, but in all areas of policy-making. Thus the creation and consolidation of a strong Israeli state, nation, and territory, came together with debates over water governance.
Another example of the states’ use of water as a tool is the Turkish government’s current extension and solidification of Turkish state influence throughout southeastern Anatolia. The GAP project, which involves the creation of twenty-one dams and extensive irrigation infrastructure, hinges on nationalist imaginings while also transforming the biophysical realities of the region.16 Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is often evoked as the inspiration for the dam and images of the Ataturk dam have also begun to appear on Turkish lira banknotes.17 Through such nationalist discourse, not only are physical transformations occurring, notions of statehood and citizenship are being tied to the emergent waterscape, and thus state and society relations begin to evolve.
The state’s relations and interactions with society result in the construction of the people’s role as citizen-subjects. In Turkey, the results of the dam construction have been mixed. Villagers of the newly irrigated areas of the Harran plain have welcomed the state’s interest in their wellbeing. One such villager, encountered by Harris, was quoted in saying “at least the state turned its face towards us,” and “the state thinks about us now.”18 On the other hand, Kurdish residents of Bozova, a village northwest of the plain, share a different sentiment. They believe that the GAP project and the Turkish state run against their own interests, noting that they do not receive water although their village, and other Kurdish villages, are very close to the Ataturk Dam reservoir. Asymmetrical access to irrigation water due to the nationalistic GAP project has reinforced the idea of the state as “differentiated,” as one that is discriminatory against Kurds. Thus the state and governance are imagined in relation to the environmental changes occurring in the region. These developmental changes are viewed as a continuation of earlier injustices, which continue to produce certain perceptions of the state.19 Infrastructure and access to services have historically been considered to be indicators of one’s status as a citizen and their perception of the state, particularly in colonial and post-colonial contexts. This is seen in post-apartheid South Africa, where the state-citizen dynamic varied based on access and quality. Those who lived in formal shacks held different notions of citizenship than those who lived in formal housing and received individual in-suite service interactions.20
Similarly, Kurdish citizens have expressed a disassociation with the Turkish state. One Kurdish laborer, mentioned in Harris’ work on Southeast Anatolia, noted that he would vote for the former Kurdish Worker’s Party leader, Öcalan – not for Turkish politicians. When he was warned by the translator that there were Turks present, he amended his statement and said, “sure, not to worry, we are all brothers with Turks; we like our state.”21 The state is thus classified as Turkish, in opposition with the Kurdish identity. Who is thus seen to be within and without state influence and interest is surmised from one’s position to irrigation infrastructure and water services.22 This is because irrigation networks and water flows are being manipulated. As the state alters the physical geography of the region, it is also mimicking and furthering sociocultural difference and kinship and patronage networks.23The state thus services some and marginalizes others in its efforts towards modernization.
The restructuring of a physical area is an example of how infrastructure and architectural projects can illuminate on the values and aspirations of the government. The nature of the policies and the results they produced imply a critique of the existing society and a symbolic act that also simultaneously erases the visibility of the Other. Land, often carrying deep historical ties to an ethnic group, is drowned through infrastructure. Urban policies are then interpreted as memory politics, for the historical imagination of the government determines which aspects of a city and which villages should be accentuated or silenced. Villages that are not associated with Kurdish identity and fulfill identity imaginaries of the government, benefit from the GAP project, with renewed access to water and economic opportunities. Villages that embody the Kurdish identity, which is seen as a direct clash to the Turkish identity, are suppressed, silenced, and erased from the map. Villagers are consequently disempowered as their social structure is disrupted and they are displaced from both their labor and cultural patterns.24
Understandings of identity and nationhood are thus intrinsically tied to water conflict and water management as the hegemon manipulates water sources to identify who, and who does not, deserve the right to water. Yet, paradoxically, it is through the practices of nation-state formation that notions of statehood and sovereignty are deconstructed as marginalized communities seek alternative forms of governance external to the state’s monoculturalism.
An emphasis on exclusion, which allows those to be seen as “real citizens” and thus potentially more “deserving” to access water services at the expense of others, highlights the shift from a focus on territory, so often associated with the nation state, to one on population. As states and borders are constructed so are populations and the identities of those within them. Although territorial power is not the sole concern, identity construction is accompanied by an appropriate space. Foucault notes that there are the constructions of the abnormal, the psychotic, the criminal, the student, and yet with those identities, there is the construction of the hospital, the clinic, the prison, and the school.25 Thus, the construction of a population inherently results in the creation of a territory and vice versa. The reconstruction of a space or infrastructure, which inherently have bio-effects, reinforces, or creates new categories of belonging.26 Differential access to water supply infrastructure deepens the differences within a society, dehumanizing some and deeming them as unworthy or not full citizens. Ideas of statehood, nationalism, and citizenry intermingle with nature and result in a manipulation of narrative and science that produces discriminatory infrastructure. State-society relations thus begin to shift, and excluded members of society see the state as a threat instead of a provider.
If we consider the modern state as performative, contingent upon evolving state-society relations, then one may conclude that as such relations weaken, so does the state. Centralized command over water by states does not only claim sovereign control, but also monopolizes access to water services, distributing it as a commoditized source and thus monetizing a life source. It is through such dogmatic claims of ownership that water services can become so inaccessible to large subsets of the population. In order to deconstruct discriminatory water practices, notions that link sovereignty and water must be disassembled. This includes a critique of the provision of water as a political commodity; although it may be provided at no cost as a counter-hegemonic strategy to the state’s monopoly, constituents are treated as clients. This can be seen in the strategy of organizations like Hezbollah, which may position itself as inhabiting a hybrid sovereignty, in between state and non-state, as a provider of state services to the disenfranchised but which rather simultaneously engages in destructive, capitalist pursuits that harm both the environment and citizens. Alternative sovereignties are more appropriately located within the local community, within those who are cast on the outskirts (refugees, domestic workers, queer, impoverished, etc) and who therefore counter the categories of citizenship. Jessica Barnes’ work on irrigation infrastructure in Egypt highlights the maintenance of irrigation ditches by farmers, which runs counter to the state-led maintenance’s priority of asserting authority, and rather builds communal relations among farmers and falls along lines of traditional practice. This practice maintains both the material and social order as community members exercise their connections to nature and one another.27
The concept of water sharing, the practice of balanced exchanges and negative reciprocity, can contribute to a moral economy of water rooted in moral understandings of “just” allocation.28Ethical commitments to water as a human right and a source of life have been studied as forms of altruism that create alternative economies of resistance. ElDidi and Corbera’s study of charity wells in Egypt’s Nile Delta showcases the ways in which sobol, charitable water wells or fountains, are products of a communicable conviction to the concept of the common property, reciprocity, and charity that bridge the water supply gap caused by the government’s shortcomings in rural communities.29In Emiralem, Turkey, farmers, wary of state-led collective modes of irrigation, utilized a hillside reservoir built by the state informally, sharing the costs of repair and criticizing individual instances of overuse. Through their practice, they developed a social arrangement that aligned with traditional arrangements, bringing the water to their plots independently and irrigating individually to reduce costs of groundwater extraction.30 Water sharing thus also serves as a counter-hegemonic effort to water privatization or dispossession and has been utilized across various communities as forms of resistance. One instance is in the Arizona desert, along the Mexican border, where activists have organized drinking water points for incoming undocumented migrants, some of which have been deliberately destroyed by governmental authorities. In England, activists have called for public water fountains as a means to claim a “right to the city.”31 And in a Palestinian refugee camp of Aida, the discussion of water insecurity and poor water quality in tandem with tear gas and noxious water have tied the struggle for water as directly against the occupation and settler colonialism. Such awareness led to the creation of a rooftop garden in Aida Camp, which centered Palestinian traditions of growing food and communal purposes for water, creating a partial sovereignty and the reorganization of power within the camp.32
Many avenues of thought can thus arise as we approach a grim environmental future. As opposed to common discussions of what we as humans do to water, it is also interesting and valuable to think of what water does to us: how our efforts to command it highlight inequalities within our socio-political environments and have catalyzed both homogenization and division. One may thus consider that water controls us more than we control it, and that it is an agent of itself. This notion of a non-agent, a non-subject, is both reflected in water and the hybrid entities, both living in the in-between but carrying significant power in our lives. By escaping strict definitions and boundaries, these fluid entities morph and occupy spaces that emphasize the realities and inefficiencies of the status quo. We can approach such spaces through shared cultural understandings of water as either embedded within our cosmological and spiritual values (e.g. Islamic notions of equitable water access to all, significance of water as purifying and a symbol of God in Christian texts) or in relation to one another and our sense of communal wellbeing (water as a “lifeblood” to connect us to other living beings).33
These ideas are yet to be fully formulated and are hard to imagine considering the power of such establishments. However, I hope that by suggesting these pockets of alternate sovereignties, where community efforts may reclaim the same very entity that is often harmfully manipulated against them, I can introduce the potential for new forms of environmental realities, structures of governance, and social imaginaries. It is through these discussions that we counter debates related to water and conflict that myopically focus on interstate dynamics. Once we underscore the intra-state or regional processes that utilize hydo-scalar constructions to centralize notions of state, nation, and territory, we can shed light on small pockets of alternative sovereignties that arise in counter-insurgency.34
- 1. Bakker, 616.
- 2. Ibid., 617
- 3. Foucault, 140.
- 4. Alatout, 606
- 5. Ibid., 607
- 6. Ibid., 607-608
- 7. Harris, 25.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Mitchell 1991.
- 10. Mitchell 2002.
- 11. Harris and Alatout, 154.
- 12. Bakker, 612.
- 13. Alatout, 612.
- 14. Ibid., 613.
- 15. Ibid.
- 16. Harris, 29.
- 17. Ibid.
- 18. Ibid.
- 19. Ibid.
- 20. Rodina and Harris, 350.
- 21. Harris, 31-32.
- 22. Ibid., 33.
- 23. Ibid.
- 24. Ibid., 37.
- 25. Foucault 1990.
- 26. Üngör, 309.
- 27. Alatout, 609.
- 28. Wutich et al., 8.
- 29. ElDidi and Corbera, 137.
- 30. Visage, 5.
- 31. Wutich, 11.
- 32. Bishara et al. 2020.
- 33. Wutich et al., 9.
- 34. Harris and Alatout, 150.
Alatout, Samer, “Towards a Bio-Territorial Conception of Power: Territory, Population, and Environmental Narratives in Palestine and Israel,” Political Geography 25, no. 6 (2006): 601-621.
Bakker, Karen, “Water: Political, Biopolitical, Material.” Social Studies of Science 42, no. 4 (2012): 616-23.
Barnes, Jessica, Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
Bishara, Amahl, Al-Azraq, Nidal, Alazzeh, Shatha and Durant, John L, “The Multifaceted Outcomes of Community-Engaged Water Quality Management in a Palestinian Refugee Camp,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 4, no. 1 (2020): 65-84.
ElDidi, Hagar and Esteve Corbera, Esteve, “A Moral Economy of Water: Charity Wells in Egypt’s Nile Delta,” Development and Change 48, no. 1 (2017): 121–45.
Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality. Volume I, An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990).
Harris, Leila M. and Alatout, Samer, “Negotiating Hydro-Scales, Forging States: Comparison of the Upper Tigris/Euphrates and Jordan River Basins,” Political Geography 29, no. 3 (2010): 148-156.
Harris, Leila M., “State as Socionatural Effect: Variable and Emergent Geographies of the State in Southeastern Turkey,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 32, no. 1 (2012): 25-39.
Marie, Amer, Khayat, Saed and Dajani, Muna, “Water Quality Legislation in Palestine over the Past Century,” Environmental Sciences Europe 24, 15 (2012).
Mitchell, Timothy, “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” American Political Science Review 85 (1991): 77-96.
Mitchell, Timothy, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 2002).
Rodina, Lucy and Harris, Leila M., “Water services, lived citizenship, and notions of the state in marginalised urban spaces: The case of Khayelitsha, South Africa,” Water Alternatives 9, no.2 (2016): 336-355.
Üngör, Uğur Ümit, “Creative Destruction,” Journal of Urban History 39, no. 2 (2012): 297-314.
Visage, Selin Le. “Making Small-Dams Work: Everyday Politics around Irrigation Cooperatives in Turkey.” European Journal of Turkish Studies. Social Sciences on Contemporary Turkey, October 30, 2021. https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.7099.
Wutich, Amber et al., “Household Water Sharing: A Review of Water Gifts, Exchanges, and Transfers across Cultures,” WIREs Water 5, no. 6 (2018).