A hydraulic empire, also known as a hydraulic despotism or water monopoly empire, arises through the need for flood control and irrigation, which requires central coordination and a specialized bureaucracy.
A developed "hydraulic civilization" maintains control over its population by means of controlling the supply of water. The term was coined by the German American historian Karl A. Wittfogel (1896 - 1988), in Oriental Despotism (1957). Wittfogel asserted that such "hydraulic civilizations" – although they were neither all located in the Orient nor characteristic of all Oriental societies – were essentially different from those of the Western world.
In The Constant Feud: Forest Versus Desert, the late Israeli author E. G. Ban used the "hydraulic empire" theory to explain the hostility between the Middle East and Western civilizations, starting with the Persian invasion of Greece, leading through the Punic Wars, the Jewish rebellions against Rome and eventually to the conflicts between the Islamic world and the Western world. In E. G. Ban's view, Middle Easterners hated the Western world because of a feeling of deprivation and envy resulting from the desertification of their own environment.
Most of the first civilizations in history, such as Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley civilization, China and pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru, were hydraulic empires. Most hydraulic empires existed in desert regions, but imperial China also had some such characteristics, due to the exacting needs of rice cultivation.
According to Wittfogel's analysis, control over the vital resource of water gave rise to the emergence of social classes, and widespread specialization typical of centralized urban life, while it also gave the government power of life and death over its population; thus a particularly extreme despotism is typical of hydraulic empires - historically, many of these empires revered their rulers as gods.
Governments were extremely centralized, with no trace of an independent aristocracy - this is completely different to the decentralized feudalism which existed in medieval Europe. Though tribal societies had structures that were usually personal in nature, exercised by a patriarch over a tribal group related by various degrees of kinship, hydraulic hierarchies gave rise to impersonal government as an established permanent institution. Popular revolution was impossible: a dynasty may die out or be overthrown by force, but the new regime would differ very little from the old one. Hydraulic empires were only ever destroyed by foreign conquerors.
Wittfogel's ideas when applied to China have been harshly criticized by scholars such as Joseph Needham who argued essentially that Wittfogel was operating from ignorance of basic Chinese history. Needham argued that the Chinese government was not despotic, that was not dominated by a priesthood, and that Wittfogel fails to realize the necessity and presence of bureaucracy in modern Western civilization.