Irrigation and Development Issues in the British Empire Documents
THE BRITISH EMPIRE AND DOMINIONS IRRIGATION AND DEVELOPMENT ISSUES IN BRITISH INDIAAlthough a significant amount of irrigation work preceded them, the British carried out extensive irrigation work in India during their colonial administration. Irrigation had been practiced in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times and it supported the earliest civilizations of the world. The British sought to improve upon these ancient works and make Indian landscapes even more productive. Their irrigation works in India became models for those pursuing irrigation development within and beyond the British Empire. The British pursued irrigation development toward a variety of ends. As the historians William Beinart and Lotte Hughes summarize, "The initial aims of colonial irrigation were to encourage agricultural settlement and political stability, boost production, increase state revenue, and improve communications. Protection against drought, and the prevention of famine, were secondary aims which subsequently became much more important" (Beinart and Hughes,"Irrigation in India and Egypt," Environment and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 134). Irrigation works for the purposes of famine prevention did not necessarily align with the goals of profit and revenue generation. The following historical documents provide contemporary insights into irrigation and development issues in British India. Several of the documents also offer significant commentary on the tragedy of famine in British India and the effectiveness of British administrative responses to it.

For a concise overview of irrigation and development issues in British India, see Beinart and Hughes, "Irrigation in India and Egypt," Environment and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 130-147.
  • Deakin, Alfred. Irrigated India An Australian View of India and Ceylon Their Irrigation and Agriculture. London: W. Thacker and Co., 1893.
    Excerpts in PDF
    • Alfred Deakin, a prominent Australian statesmen who had served as the Minister of Water Supply in Victoria, surveyed the irrigation works in several countries in the 1880s and 1890s in order to find suitable models for Victoria. Prior to his survey of British India's irrigation works, he had surveyed projects in the United States (see below), Egypt, and Italy. He addressed the connection between the development of irrigation works and the specter of famine in India in parts of this selection.

  • Wilson, Herbert M. Irrigation in India. United States Geological Survey Water Supply and Irrigation Paper No. 87. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903.
    Excerpts in PDF
    • Herbert M. Wilson, an American hydraulic engineer, sought to draw models and lessons from the extensive irrigation works constructed in India under British colonial rule. He saw parallels between parts of the Indian environment and those of the semiarid western United States where federal irrigation projects were being planned and carried out by the recently formed Reclamation Service (today's Bureau of Reclamation). In this selection, Wilson distinguished between "protective works" that were primarily intended to prevent famine or provide famine relief and "productive works" that were primarily intended to generate revenue.

  • Dutt, Romesh C. Famines and Land Assessments in India. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1900.
    Excerpts in PDF
    • Romesh C. Dutt, a leading member of the Indian National Congress and an economist, alleged that colonial authorities had over-assessed lands which resulted in financially devastating rents for Indian peasants which made them all the more vulnerable during droughty years. He examined the land systems in place in the major regions of India, and he found correlations between over-assessed lands and areas suffering the greatest from famines in 1877, 1897, and 1899. The selection includes one of his five letters to the Viceroy of India from the larger work. It also includes his evaluations of the famine insurance grant, railroads, and irrigation works that the colonial administration had pledged to combat famine in the wake of the 1877 famine.

  • Report of the Indian Famine Commission, 1901. Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing, 1901.
    Excerpts in PDF
    • The Indian Famine Commission of 1901 had been appointed by British authorities to investigate the administration of famine relief by the colonial administration and the conditions contributing to famine in the wake of the famine of 1899-1900. Several individuals who had administered famine relief during the famine also served on this Indian Famine Commission. This selection provides a counterpoint to the selection from Dutt.

IRRIGATION AND DEVELOPMENT ISSUES ELSEWHERE IN THE BRITISH EMPIREAlthough British India was an irrigation leader in the British Empire, there were extensive irrigation developments elsewhere as well. The following historical documents particularly highlight the work of irrigation in the settler colonies where white settlers sought to increase settlement by transforming semiarid landscapes into irrigated oases.
  • Royal Commission on Water Supply, Victoria, Australia. First Progress Report, by Alfred Deakin, Irrigation in Western America, So Far As It Has Relation To The Circumstances Of Victoria. Melbourne: John Ferres, Government Printer, 1885.
    • Alfred Deakin, who served as the Minister of Water Supply in Victoria at the time of this report and would go onto become a very prominent Australian statesmen, surveyed irrigation works in several countries, but he argued that irrigation in the American West was the most similar to that in the colony, and later Australian state (1901), of Victoria. These excerpts from the larger report reflect the connections between irrigation developments in Australia and the American West.
  • Willcocks, William.
    Report on Irrigation in South Africa. Johannesburg [?]: Printed by authority, 1901 PDF.
    • Sir William Willcocks was the most prominent hydraulic engineer in the British Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He participated in the planning of irrigation projects in India, Egypt, Iraq, and South Africa. Hydraulic engineers in other countries read his reports and sought his knowledge on their own projects. Willcocks wrote this report on the future of South African irrigation in the latter stages of the devastating Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) in which the British attempted to assert their authority over the resistant Afrikaners or Boers (descendents of Dutch settlers) in the region. The report included commentary by Willcocks on the Boers.
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