It is a little known fact that Central Asia (which, typically, does not conjure up much in the popular imagination beyond oil and despots) was once the site of many thriving cosmopolitan cultures.

Long-forgotten metropolises like Nishapur and Merv rivaled Baghdad’s Arabian Nights for shopping, intellectual life and the arts.

Then, like now, much of the land was arid desert. In some ways, it is hard to imagine a less hospitable terrain for human civilization. And yet, it flourished here, primarily because of a highly advanced system of irrigation.

Water, as we all know from watching The Big Short, is the next big crisis. There’s not going to be enough of it, at least the way we’re using it now. And so, once again, as we wade into the murky waters of the future, it is helpful to look at the past.

In its golden age, Central Asia was a good example of a “hydraulic civilization.” The term was coined by Karl Wittfogel, the German historian and Sinologist.

Wittfogel’s hydraulic civilization theory can be briefly described thus: Land in water-scarce areas requires intensive irrigation to increase agricultural returns. Intensive irrigation in turn depends on the ability to manage a major—if sole—source of water effectively. But a large body of water can be dammed (with massive masonry structures) and channeled (through channels running hundreds of miles long and deep underground) only by mobilizing a large labour force. Thus, a hydraulic civilization is typically characterized by a strong, centralized state.

While Wittfogel’s thesis has many detractors—not least because of its title, Oriental Despotism —it certainly offers a useful paradigm with which to understand this part of the world.

In the ancient civilization of Merv, in what is today Turkmenistan, a huge number of people were put to work in maintaining its sophisticated irrigation system. Water resources were placed under the charge of the most senior officials, emphasizing their importance to the state.

(Quick, name your country’s minister for the environment? No? Can you name your ministers for defense and finance, though? That should tell you about the relative importance of these matters.)

Despite having access to only one source of water, this Central Asian city-state supported a population of over one million at its zenith in the twelfth century.

Counterintuitively, the rigorously hierarchical and strictly regulated social system did not stifle intellectual activity in Merv: quite the opposite, in fact. This could be put down to its location at the crossroads of civilizations, i.e., the Silk Road. Exposed to every new idea and boasting of a highly literate populace (the ability to read and write being necessary to negotiate contracts for international trade), Merv’s wealthy upper classes were either scholars and artists themselves or patrons of the same.

More recently, consider the princely state of Hunza (in present-day Pakistan). Scarcity of rainfall and arable land presented major constraints on agriculture in this region. In the nineteenth century, however, its ruler, Mir Silim, began to construct a large-scale irrigation system comprising three primary, gravity-fed channels. The project was complex and dangerous, requiring him to mobilize large amounts of compulsory labor. As the Mir maintained absolute authority over his subjects, this did not present much of a challenge.

 

In our modern age, societies facing water scarcity have adopted a similar form of organization. Singapore is one very successful example, as is Dubai.

 

Nevertheless, the above-mentioned societies diverge from Wittfogel’s hydraulic civilizations in one aspect: their size. Wittfogel spoke of empires like China, Egypt and India. Merv, Hunza, Singapore and Dubai are city-states.

Historically, the distance between Central Asia’s oases was too large, and human resources too few, to be conducive to a greater degree of centralization.

That changed when Russia and the USSR entered the picture. From a small, localized operation, irrigation became a grand, national project, managed by central bureaucrats, bringing water across the vast expanse of the Soviet Union and dramatically increasing the areas under cultivation, with an attendant increase in land degradation.

The new system was rife with inefficiencies, further exacerbated by the collapse of the USSR. While some might argue that the collapse of an empire always results in a decline in irrigated agriculture, it’s worth noting that throughout its tempestuous history, Central Asia had seen many rulers, but its indigenous irrigation system remained the same. Today, the Soviet irrigation system is no longer workable and many parts of Central Asia face a water crisis.

Central Asia expert Frederick Starr has also argued that the difference between the traditional and Soviet approach to water management in Central Asia was that one was intensive and the other extensive.1 That is, the traditional approach was to extract maximum productivity from a limited resource through a combination of focus and imagination, while the Soviet approach was to increase the available resources instead.

The lesson then, with respect to water management, appears to be that small is beautiful.