From the Moors to the New World: Lessons from Dynamic Water Sharing for a Colonial-Era System in the Indus

21 Pages Posted: 12 May 2018

Date Written: April 25, 2018


This project is a close study of the legal and political aspects of management of water resources in semi-arid environments. The British in India laid the foundations of the modern irrigation system in what is now India and Pakistan. In semi-arid environments, the bulk of agriculture relies on irrigation, as it did in Spain under the Moors. We can observe a stark divide in the use of laws and institutions to manage natural resources in different societies, at different times and places. Some societies have managed in a way that achieved prosperity and long-term sustainability. Others have mismanaged so as to create ecological devastation and social stagnation. The Moors of Spain created a vibrant civilization in the Middle Ages that lasted nearly eight hundred years. One of the reasons for the dynamism of their civilization was their judicious management of water resources on which foundation they created a thriving agricultural economy that produced the economic surplus for their vibrant urban culture. Of particular interest for my project is what I regard as the essence of Moorish water management: its management of scarcity by borrowing principles from the great cradles of civilization, Mesopotamia and the Nile, which built abundance in harsh environments, along with principles of use, reuse and justice as conceived of in the Quran. These sets of principles, I shall argue, yielded a society that wasted no drop of its precious waters and adopted and innovated to create new technologies, infrastructure, norms and institutions. The British in India meanwhile laid the foundations of water-sharing in a way that to this day reifies rural hierarchy and leads to social and economic stagnation while devastating the environment. In this project of comparison, I draw relevant lessons from Moorish water systems for today's management of water resources across countries.

Suggested Citation

Sattar, Erum, From the Moors to the New World: Lessons from Dynamic Water Sharing for a Colonial-Era System in the Indus (April 25, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Erum Sattar (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

Cambridge, MA
United States
6179533638 (Phone)
6179533638 (Fax)

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