Call for Papers: Water and Societies in the Arab-Mediterranean World and the Countries of the South

RHN 146/2013 | Call

Organiser: The Tunisian-Mediterranean Association for Historical, Social and Economic Studies

28–30 April 2014, Beja, Tunisia

Deadline: 31 December 2013


"Between Abundance and Scarcity":
Water and Societies in the Arab-Mediterranean World and the Countries of the South

Water is life, or the basis of life. This statement, dictated by common sense and frequently constructed in proverbs, merits attention here if the fear (justified or not) of seeing humanity be deprived from water gives it throbbing news?

In fact, this is a rather simplistic way of putting the question. That the best experts can rigorously demonstrate that no global shortage of fresh water is to be feared in the foreseeable future should certainly ease the conscience of the part of humanity that enjoys minimal comforts. On the contrary, what can this news change from the destiny of all those who do not have regular access to drinking water or are exposed to many diseases transmitted by water, to natural disasters related to water, etc.. ? Is it not that media reports on the "increasing scarcity" of this vital resource mostly tend to conceal the unfairness of its distribution ? Thinking exclusively in terms of physical availability is similar to eluding us from the eminently social character of the rules of access to water whatever be the time and place.

I. Natural factors and human action: what is water "scarcity?

Obviously, one should consider the infinite variety of conditions imposed by Nature to life and human activity. Paradoxes come to mind, such as Lake Baikal, that huge reserve of fresh water (20% of those found in the world) at the heart of Siberia, almost untapped, while in the four corners of the world, lakes of all sizes are shrinking dangerously due to various anthropogenic pressures. Among the largest rivers in the world, while some run through huge regions which have long remained virtually empty of inhabitants (Amazonia, the Congo Basin), others on the contrary are at the centre of the world's most populous plains (China, India, Southeast Asia), and finally, others run through a series of countries with very strong climatic and demographic contrasts (the case of the Nile). But the main distinguishing factor is of course, rainfall. From this point of view, there is a big gap between temperate areas, benefiting from abundant and well distributed rainfall throughout the year, and areas subject to serious constraints or shortages- as is the case of a great part of the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East. In the South of the Sahara, countries of the Sahel region suffer from dryness, despite a relatively high annual volume of rainfall, due to the erratic character of rainfall and its concentration over a very short period of the year. In contrast, the rainy tropical regions of Africa, Asia and America have generally favourable conditions but with significant variations depending on the length of the dry season.

At the level of the Mediterranean basin, it is the diversity that is the rule, given the terrain and various natural factors: the discontinuity between neighbouring regions affects its tenure and its value and development. But the differences cannot be explained by means of a physical determinism but by the modes of social organization and the specific choices made by the people involved in the production systems. Climatic constraints may weigh heavily on the economic activity and living standards, without playing any exclusive role: some of the better-watered regions may be the poorest. Conversely, the lack of rain presipitation sometimes stimulates the development of a dynamic irrigated agriculture - whose viability nevertheless requires balanced resource management (especially groundwater…

A prolonged drought is often the cause of famine, even if this is combined with other factors of crisis - such as poverty which is a social phenomenon. We remember the tragedy that struck the Sahel and Ethiopia in the early 1970s. Since then, successive droughts have affected a growing portion of the continent, but a more rapid response of the international community can (relatively) curtail human losses. In India, where meteorological data has been systematically recorded over two centuries, the frequency of droughts has known no steady increase. The most serious recent droughts (1987 and 2009) have apparently caused no loss of life; the Indian authorities, having themselves secured disaster relief without any outside help.

According to the few available estimates, severe droughts recorded globally between 1970 and 2009 (428 cases in total) have claimed the life of an estimated 558,500 people and affected a cumulative total of approximately 1,625.4 million : but while the African continent alone represents 99% of deaths (43% of cases), it concerns only 16% of the total affected population, against 80% in Asia. If the African continent appears therefore most exposed to drought caused by "nature", its main shortcoming is by far more of a socio-economic nature: the extreme poverty of very large segments of the population disproportionately amplifies their vulnerability to climatic hazards.

It should be noted also that many countries and regions which are most vulnerable to drought are also exposed to floods whose damage is much more severe in general. This can be illustrated by the case of Pakistan where 60% of the total area is classified as arid (annual rainfall less than 200 mm). 82% of the cultivated area is irrigated; the country being covered by a huge network of canals which facilitates at the same time the movement of destructive waves. The devastating floods of 2010, affecting a fifth of the country, officially caused 1985 deaths and affected more than 18 million people (including 6 million displaced).

II. Water, history and societies

Whatever the weight and variety of physical factors, and the many constraints they have on life and human activity, no problem related to water can be addressed in isolation from social factors. History also teaches that the forms of control and management of water resources (for economic or other purposes) can be the basis for the organization and operation of entire societies - defined, wrongly or rightly as "hydraulic societies". Such at least is the view taken by the social historian Karl Wittfogel in his monumental book Oriental despotism. According to this author, there have been some hydraulic societies as there are industrial capitalist or feudal societies: their specificity lies in the fundamental relationship between an economic system based on the control of large-scale water and its political functions. Several societies, some of which are certainly at the origins of the oldest civilizations of the world, meet this definition: Imperial China, Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamia (From Sumer to Babylon), some pre-Columbian American societies... Bringing together many people under the authority of a highly centralized state power, these societies live mainly on irrigated agriculture ("hydro-agriculture") involving the construction of large hydraulic structures under the control of a kind of bureaucracy with very extensive powers capable of regularly mobilizing the majority of the peasantry to carry out community service, and appropriating a substantial surplus (in labour or product), while generally ensuring to establish food reserves in anticipation of difficult years.

This very hierarchical system was undoubtedly efficient both technically and economically. It nevertheless presents deficiencies, even if their effects are felt over long periods, especially on the ecological level. One of the most inspiring examples of this fact is the very gradual but inexorable collapse of the brilliant Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia (3700-1600 BC.) by reason of the sterilization of land due to salification. Quite different is the context of the feudal societies at the northern shores of the Mediterranean, where the role of the central government in hydraulics appears minimal. However, a particularly interesting case is that of Spain, especially during the Muslim occupation ("Andalusian period"). Different groups tried to take advantage of the natural potential and irrigation techniques (largely imported from the East). Grouped into communities with a strong cohesion, farmers negotiated with the state (despite their distrust towards it) to ensure its support against the greedy ambitions of nobles and notables for land rent. Spaces or irrigation areas, which frequently included water mills, were managed in peasant logic for the self-sufficiency of the communities on the basis of the use of water as efficiently as possible. But the evolution of the feudal system (after the Muslim occupation) led to a separation of the ownership of water from that of the land, especially in areas where water is rarer and it promoted the appearance of "Lords of water", who derive substantial profits from the lease or auction of the precious liquid. Despite the opposition of peasant communities, the concentration of water rights strengthened over the centuries, while water control became an instrument of social control in the service of the landowners. The actual role of the mobilization of water resources in the economic, social and political pre-colonial Maghreb is particularly difficult to define, given the great diversity of situations and practices of fluctuating land base of most state formations, especially the limited role of agriculture as an accumulation factor. For centuries, the long-distance trade (including Trans-Sahara) was the main source of wealth for groups able to exploit the position of intersection of the Maghreb (North-South, East and West). Socio-economic factors were therefore combined with the physical characteristics to limit large water projects. It is only by the time of the colonization that the Maghreb countries will would face a major change "exported" by the industrial revolution: namely the use of water for industrial purposes (e.g. production of hydropower). From the beginning of the colonial occupation, the administration strived to set strict rules for water use, especially with the law of 1851 in Algeria which incorporated water to the public domain. Over time, large settlers however found a way to influence legislation in favour of their interests, and the colonial administration did not succeed to prevent their control over the water resources of indigenous peasants.

A turning point came in the 1920s, with the emerging option for tanks and large hydro dams, due to the decisive influence of large construction companies (backed by financial groups). Colonial Maghreb would then offer a special testing ground for new technology – and made huge profits. The technical and economic assessment of dams built in Algeria and Morocco is far from brilliant: limited capacity, regulated flow well below the theoretical capacity, excessive delays in production and additional costs exorbitant. But the most serious is the lack of consideration of erosion affecting watersheds: due to the lack of effective protection and restoration of soils, deductions suffer from an excessively rapid siltation. If these dams are still well below the expectations raised in the strict colonial logic, their impact on the life and activity of indigenous rural populations are often serious and unexpected: questioning the forms and use rights of neighbouring tribes, disturbance of the regimes of these rivers, rigid plating of irrigation networks unsuited to local realities... Colonial water policy contributed especially in the three major countries of the Maghreb to utter dispossession of indigenous farming communities in terms of access to water resources, but also and above all they were deprived from their self-management capacity, their knowledge and know-how, etc…This form of dispossession, less known than on agricultural land, but having equally serious consequences, deserves further consideration. This colonial hydraulic such as the "mine" type (short term imposing its law) left a legacy. Hence the questions about the social implications of the current water policy in the Maghreb countries and the entire Arab world.

III. Agricultural water uses and social structures

Up till now, agricultural activities have mobilized the largest share of available water in almost all societies. But the overall relative share of irrigated agriculture crops varies considerably, and this can be explained in part by natural factors. At the level of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, there is a significant difference between the countries of the North Shore and South Shore: the first mainly industrialized countries, having completed the "demographic transition", and where the farming population represents only an increasingly reduced portion of the total population. In contrast, the countries of the Southern shore so far have gone through a sustained population growth, despite the steady decline in fertility; furthermore, their agricultural population, be it the majority or not, is still a significant proportion of the total population. These countries thus face constraints significantly heavier than the former ones, including food self-sufficiency, which requires them to produce an increasing amount of basic foodstuffs, and to ensure income decent to a significant mass of rural families. If cereals (staple food) are often grown in dry areas, at least part of the irrigated crops is often destined for export, to import in return the needed complement of grain. This logic which applies particularly to Maghreb states is found at the level of family farmers whose production of fruits and vegetables (mostly irrigated) is largely for the market to compensate for the inadequacy of their grain production. But this general scheme ignores the socio-economic inequalities between large operators releasing comfortable surplus (both grain and vegetables) to categories of rural families whose agricultural production is lower than required, and only survive through multiple activities.

An issue which is as complex and interesting is the relationship between irrigation, inequality and socio-economic status. Some authors, joining the position of the UNDP, consider irrigation as an effective means of struggle against poverty, since it would help the farmer out of the status of sharecropping and land dependence: this is particularly the case in Lebanon since the 1950s. We do not, however, generalize, and the case of Egypt illustrates (contrariwise) that acute land inequity can emerge in a country where almost the whole of its agriculture is irrigated. The revolution of 1952 was accompanied by a radical agrarian reform (with a steady reduction in the maximum of area allowed). But facing the continual fragmentation of land, leaders enacted a new law in 1992, which can be called the counter agrarian-reform, which had a major impact apart from reinforcing the great owners and the virtually official disappearance of indirect and mixed farming contracts stooges, hence the increased precariousness of poor peasants and the landless.

In North Africa, it is exceedingly difficult to speak of a general system of production based on irrigation, considering both their extreme diversity and profound transformations. Irrigated areas located in the Great Plains since the end of the colonial era appear as "enclaves" in the countryside. In Morocco, considered a pioneer in the field, these large areas appear mainly as instruments of the forced modernization of rural areas, subjecting farmers to rigid rules strange to their logic. However, the Maghreb fellahin demonstrate a real passion for the small hydro since it offers them the opportunity to diversify and modernize their production systems. The dynamism of the vegetable-growers of the Cap Bon in Tunisia is probably the best example. But it is important to also take into account the radical transformation of certain areas which have long been devoted only to the cultivation of crop, like South Sétifois in Algeria, with the multiplication of individual pumps. The small and medium hydraulic occupy a significant place in all the Maghreb (more than 50% to 80% of the irrigated areas in each country). However, this movement, despite its many advantages (flexibility, adaptability, reduced irrigation cost), has a serious counterpart: in particular the super-exploitation of groundwater - with the consequences are already being felt in some areas.

Through the diversity of these examples, a common thread emerges: the general lack of a real hydraulic tradition among the majority of North African peasants, for whom the adoption (spontaneous or not) of irrigation is a more or less marked break with the old production systems. The situation is totally different in arid areas and especially in the oasis, where all agricultural activity involves the technical and social control of water. In the desert environment itself, irrigation is primarily or exclusively based on groundwater. The tremendous diversity of the techniques for the capturing and distributing of water - reflecting partially (but only in part) the natural conditions - is an evidence of the ingenuity and adaptability of Saharan peoples. One of the most original forms of abstraction is that of the foggaras (underground drainage gallery), especially prevalent in the South-west of the Algerian Sahara: it allows capturing water from a shallow water table and to bring it by degrees to the surface of a depression, where an oasis can be created. Moreover, the exploitation of groundwater is generally done through various types of sources or sinks (including the artesian). Finally, the oasis people in some cases have even achieved the feat of farming without irrigation, taking advantage of the proximity of water (the case of Souf). The efficiency of irrigation systems is based on their integration into complex forms of social organization, capable of imposing the collective discipline necessary for survival in a hostile environment. But due to an uneven distribution of water rights, the latter usually involve a relentless exploitation of farmers by a minority of leaders, under "sharecropping" contracts. Yet the situation has changed in recent decades, with the weakening of the old hierarchies, but also the emergence of new forms of inequality. And current struggles for water, often of "underground" nature are not less intense. Is the State in a position to assure itself a rational and sustainable management of the resource, and a fair distribution?

IV. Drinking water and water for domestic use: modes of access and social inequalities

Regular access to drinking water and for domestic use has long been considered as urban "luxury" - rural people being assumed, because of their lifestyle more "rough", as having significantly reduced needs in this area. This cliché has had a durable life, despite the image largely conveyed by the media about rural women (especially African) constrained to the daily activity of carrying heavy water jugs on their heads. In fact, beyond the extreme diversity of situations, the fundamental divide in poor countries is not between urban and rural areas, but between a fraction of the people "connected" to a distribution network and those having generally a choice between two types of solutions: long and arduous travel or regular purchase of water from private vendors at often exorbitant prices. Many studies and surveys in various parts of the world reveal the same shocking disproportion between the real cost of water for the wealthy inhabitants of the cities and the most disadvantaged. Thus, according to the data collected from a dozen major Asian cities, tariffs for the mains users appear as homogeneous as modest (about 0.10 to U.S. $ 0.15 / m³), while the price paid by those who use the "informal" market, much more variable reaches excessive levels, at least with respect to their purchasing power, usually between 1 and 2 U.S. $ / m³, but sometimes up to 5 or U.S. $ 6. In Peru, a "Movement for the waterless" is said to be actively struggling in the suburbs of the capital.

This does not allow for much to classify all subscribers to a network as "privileged" because of the great variability of the real conditions in many cities in the Southern and Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, for instance, the deficient state of networks impacts heavily on the regularity of the water supply and the quality of it. Faced with constant water cuts, many households "connected" to resort themselves to expensive expedients. Moreover, the financial dimension of access to water often raises extremely complex problems. In the larger cities of the Maghreb, the need to carry water over increasingly long distances inevitably leads to higher production costs. The rates charged by company providers are usually much lower than both the real and excessively high costs for the poorest population fractions, which puts the government in a serious dilemma. Some experts say that the solution lies in the general privatization of water services. But the experiences from various countries of the South in the 1990s (at the instigation of the World Bank and IMF) show that the substitution of private monopolies (or oligopolies) to state monopolies is immediately reflected in exorbitant rate increases, even resulting in riots (see Cochabamba, Bolivia). The profitability targeted by water multinationals implies the exclusion of disadvantaged social groups. And can governments impose highly differentiated rates according to the purchasing power of users?

V. Water, Environment and Health

The issue of access to safe drinking water is in fact inseparable from that of the relationship between water, environment and health. Basic factor of any form of life, water is also (by irony of nature?) a factor of illness and even death. Specialists distinguish at least three types of water-related diseases: 1.) Waterborne diseases, caused by contact with contaminated water (diarrhea, cholera, etc.), 2) diseases transmitted by vectors related to water (such as malaria), 3) water-borne diseases transmitted by worms found in surface water (such as schistosomiasis ).

Water helps in various ways to the reproduction and transmission of multiple pathogens: this is a general phenomenon, but frequently taking larger proportions in the tropics (due to more favorable weather conditions for the proliferation of some parasites and their vectors) coupled with pollution caused by man. The question of the relationship between water and health is therefore of paramount importance, and arises at several levels. The assessment of the quality of water for human consumption is as essential as the regularity of the supply. Moreover, the presence of stagnant water and uncontrolled wastewater flows are ongoing hazards for people and especially children, and calls for regular sanitation. Apart from the variations in the type of disease, exposure can vary significantly on the scale of a urban area, between "residential" neighborhoods and thickly populated areas deemed unsafe due to the presence of stagnant water, the accumulation of garbage, pollution of water sources or groundwater, etc... Social inequalities also play a decisive role in the exposure to certain diseases. Moreover, differences in lifestyle and forms of adaptation vis-à-vis a particular disease should be taken into account. Yet, in tropical Africa, for example, the risk of exposure to parasites transmitted by insects related to water varies both according to the type of habitat and the characteristics of each disease: high human densities are the best natural protection against onchocerciasis, while the reverse is true for trypanosomiasis. Malaria - a major current cause of mortality (especially infant) on a global scale is initially a phenomenon specific to rural areas, the urban environment being unfavorable to the growth of Anopheles. By contrast, natural immunity acquired by the rural youth is lost during their installation in the city, and the most severe forms of malaria occur when they return to the village. As for schistosomiasis, being transmitted by snails living especially in irrigation canals, its impact varies according to the interaction of men with water.

Finally, environmental disturbances caused by man inevitably impact more or less serious health and living conditions. In particular, the issue of large dams is regularly the subject of bitter controversy for decades. The Aswan High Dam in Egypt, built in the context of the Cold War with the help of the USSR, has long been the target of harsh criticism – though its intensity has significantly decreased nowadays. However, this type of question is a key issue, with the proliferation of large dams and other large water projects worldwide, which often result in the forced displacement of large masses of people: the development of the Narmada Valley in India, the giant Three Gorges dam in China, the water transfer of the Yangzhi and Han rivers toward the North (also in China), etc.. It is always very difficult to objectively compare the economic benefits (overstated or not) of these huge works and real human cost.

However, the polarization on these colossal operations tends to conceal many forms of "ecological disasters", which often remain almost invisible, especially when they come from uncoordinated social actors having different logics. Such is the case in parts of India who has actively participated in the "Green Revolution." In ten years, the uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater has led a significant fraction of farmers to convert to water trade, considered more profitable and less risky than farming. These "farmers-pumpers" sell water from their deep wells or boreholes mainly to textile factories, which thoew water containing toxic waste into rivers, sterilizing downstream soil and polluting groundwater: all this at the expense of the population of neighboring villages, deprived from agricultural resources and water, and exposed to serious diseases. For most of them, the only solution is to go to the city and offer their labor to the industrial-polluters responsible for their ruin!

VI. Competition and conflicts over water. Towards a “water war "?

Generally, due to its physical properties, water is unsuitable to forms of capture by and for purely individual use. Whatever its major uses, it cannot be permanently stored in large quantities in a domestic or local basis, hence the need for cooperation at various levels. This cooperation cannot exclude tensions or conflicts due to the heterogeneity of interests and the difficulty of regularly ensuring a fair distribution. The diversity of uses of water gives rise to forms of competition that the relative "scarcity" - or rather the difficulty of access to the precious liquid - does not fail to exacerbate. What is true at the level of small communities is not also true at large regional or national levels? Yet it would be unwise to try to transpose to the international level the banal image of fights for the use of water in arid areas (for example).

It is first necessary to be wary of the mechanistic reasoning which presents the intensity of conflicts over water is proportional to the lack of available resources versus the "needs" (real or virtual) of the communities concerned. As for the current discourse on the "water war", despite their global geopolitical impact, it is clear that this is a recent phenomenon, largely posterior to the Cold War. The scaremongering discourse regularly voiced concerning some regions among the "hottest" of the world, such as the Near and the Middle East, according to which "next war will be that of water," appear to be more of an incantation than a scientific view. If it is indisputable that neighboring states have been in open or latent conflict for more than half a century, opposing each other on issues relating to water, how can we demonstrate both the inevitability of next imminent and widespread armed conflict, and the fact that its main or even sole cause is water ? The author of a recent study on the subject, while responding in the negative to this question, however, cautions that water is "one of the keys to peace in the region."

This probably applies to regions marked by strong tensions, especially regarding cross boundary rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. In this area, in the absence of a genuine international law, relations between riparian States appear to be based primarily on power relations (see the "Harmon Doctrine" and the unbalanced relationship between the U.S. and Mexico). This being said, the problems of water allocation between neighboring States often tend to hide the complex relationship between several factors, maintaining a conflict whose roots are essentially external to issues of water. Thus, the relations between the States of the former Soviet Central Asia are performed exclusively through a "tautological" disourse designed to impose the artificial image of a widespread "shortage" of water. Nothing, however, allows us to conclude that there is a general prevalence of the law of the "survival of the fittest." Cooperation between India and Bangladesh would seem to indicate the possibility of sharing both flexible and equitable water of cross boundary Rivers, taking particular account of the extreme vulnerability of Bangladesh to floods. Another question, equally important, is how to ensure the effective implementation of this basic human right universally recognized since 2010 - namely access to water (especially drinking water). Currently only States are guarantors of this right, but can compliance be monitored?

The above developments have probably given at least an idea of the extreme complexity of the problems related to water, just as it is almost impossible to tackle them in a "comprehensive" way. If the succession of world water forums (coupled with "alternative" forums) and countless scientific meetings on the subject tend to cast doubt on the appropriateness of a new conference on the subject, it should be noted that the situation is constantly changing to the image (if not the rhythm) of the flow of rivers toward the sea. The problem of access to safe drinking water and sanitation arises every day, but in terms renewed for the one and two billion human beings, while the sustainable management of resources runs constantly into new constraints, due to unforeseen and often conflicting requirements. It is thus important to reflect on the social, economic, political and cultural factors that influence the conditions of use of water, from the most local to the most global level, and the actual barriers to a more equitable and efficient distribution. More specifically, the discussions should focus on the question raised at the outset, namely the meaning and social implications of the concept of "water scarcity". This involves a full and open dialogue between social scientists in the broadest sense (historians, geographers, economists, lawyers, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, etc.), a dialogue in which the participation of representatives of the "hard" sciences (hydrology, climatology, etc..) could be particularly beneficial.


  1. What is "scarcity" of water? Respective weights of climatic, ecological, socio-economic and political factors
  2. Historical dimension: the place of "water control" in the organization and evolution of human societies
  3. Water and agricultural production systems: irrigation, farming strategies and social relations
  4. Drinking water and water for domestic use: access modes and social inequality. Water as a "common good" or a "commodity"?
  5. Water, environment and health: water-related diseases, coping strategies of people, environmental, health and social impact of major hydraulic works
  6. Competition and conflicts over water. "Water Wars" or global governance?


Key Dates

  • Submission of Abstracts : December 31 / 2013 to be sent to the following address:
  • Notification of Abstract Acceptance : January 10 /2014
  • Deadline for sending Final Text: April 15 / 2014
  • Sixth International Conference: April 28, 29, 30 / 2014 / Beja – TUNISIA.

Terms of submission

  • Proposals for papers can be submitted in Arabic, English, French, or Spanish.
  • Detailed Summary: at least one page (font: Times New Roman 12, Page Margins 2.5 cm), with a scientific CV updated
  • For summaries in French or Spanish, a detailed translation in English is required (at least one page).
  • For summaries in Arabic, a detailed translation in English or French is required (at least one page).
  • A publication is planned at the end of the conference after the evaluation of texts

Contact: Ibrahim Muhammed SAADAOUI. CNRPS City, N° 731, Beja (9000) TUNISIA.

Source: H-Net