Angelo Matteo Caglioti

«In This Country, Water Means Life». Eritrea’s Erratic Rivers and Italian Irrigation Projects between Adwa and Mussolini (1897-1934)

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This article places the project of controlling water of the Horn of Africa at the center o Italian colonialism. It argues that studying how colonial officials thought about and acted in relation to water is essential for understanding the shifting relationship between environment, knowledge, and power as the Italian colonial empire transitioned from a liberal to a fascist political regime. In the Italian environmental imaginary, Eritrea was associated with barren, inhospitable, and rocky landscapes. Indeed, aridity is the foremost feature of the Horn of Africa. Along the coasts of the Red Sea, the average amount of annual rainfall is usually below the threshold necessary for rain-fed agriculture. Thus, water was the most precious resource for indigenous societies and colonial administrators. While Eritrean communities developed highly mobile agro-pastural practices to maximize the erratic amount of water available every rainy season, Italian hydrologists, engineers, and colonial experts envisioned an infrastructure of dams and canals to harness the rivers. These colonial practices of water management highlight the continuity between Italian liberalism and fascism and put Italian colonialism in the larger perspective of European environmental imperialism in Africa.


  • Aridity
  • Rivers
  • Colonialism


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