Conflict Trends 2000/2

Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Survive?

2 Nov 2009

In her book Pillar of Sand, Sandra Postel’s contribution is rather unique. She combines well-crafted language and solid primary material with deep insight, making the book easy to read. While her Malthusian-style may open her to criticism, she has worked skilfully.

The central tenet is that current thinking behind irrigated agriculture is fundamentally flawed. This is significant because much of the current international water discourse is centred on expansion in the irrigation sector. In fact, many developed countries often consider this to be a fundamental component of their development strategy. Postel turns to history to show that every great irrigation-based civilisation of the past has ultimately failed. The inescapable culprit in this regard is salinisation, which is a fundamental product of nature. In this sense, Pillar of Sand is similar to Mark Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert. This angle of attack is bound to raise eyebrows in the hydropolitical environment, because the vested interests of commercially irrigated agriculture are enormous. The irrigation paradigm seems to be so deeply entrenched in development circles that it appears almost untouchable – a real holy cow.

The issues Postel raises as components of the solution are rather profound, and are uncommon in most hydropolitical texts. Firstly, she does not attempt to attack the irrigation debate directly, suggesting instead that irrigation is still necessary, but that the emphasis should move away from mega-projects towards micro-projects. This is more environmentally friendly, contributes to food security at the household level and does away with some of the damaging components of the large dam debate. However, this has major implications for planners and decision-makers in developing countries. Secondly, she delves into the very thorny issue of allocating water to the most economically efficient sectors. This is an extremely complex issue and is avoided by most authors. While she does not use the technical terminology for this policy choice (inter-sectoral allocative efficiency) – probably because the book is not aimed at the specialised policy analyst – this remains the thrust of her argument. If one considers the fact that the flow of water through society orders social, political and economic relationships, this becomes a crucial point for policy-makers to understand. Traditionally, the industrial sector makes far more efficient use of water than agriculture does. Rationality therefore implies that under conditions of chronic water scarcity, decision-makers would allocate less water to agriculture and more to industry. However, this has major political ramifications, as it implies a fundamental restructuring of society, with implications of this being felt in the rapid expansion of cities to accommodate rural ‘displacees’. Whilst these implications are not all identified and worked through to their logical conclusion, the text remains valuable simply for raising them in the first place.

In light of this, Postel brings into focus the Water Wars debate, identifying two broad scenarios. The first consists of the conflict between food production and water usage for urban and environmental purposes. This is central to the inter-sectoral allocative efficiency issue noted above. The second consists of the conflict between irrigation and the politics of scarcity, where Postel concludes that ‘whether international or domestic, tensions over water scarcity have the potential to incite civil unrest, spur migration, impoverish already poor regions, and destabilise governments’ (Postel, 1999:162). In this regard, she alludes to the development of a new security paradigm, involving the politicisation of the environment and water at a global level. One logical outcome of this would be the development of environmental diplomacy as a new form of interstate interaction.

The book is an excellent read and is not specifically written with only the hydropolitical scholar in mind. Readers with an interest in development, politics and environmentalism will find the text rich with new ideas that will undoubtedly shed light on an issue that is increasing in importance for countries in drought-stricken parts of Africa.

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