“Water,” wrote the mayor’s council late in the nineteenth century, “is the only thing holding Algiers back from expanding its glory as the queen of African cities.” Paris uses 240 liters of water per person per day, it reported; New York, Philadelphia and Chicago 400 liters. Algiers could only muster a meager 60 liters per day per person, far below the levels necessary to feed a population, fill wells, and scrub a city of its toxins. For over half a century, the council reported, Algiers had thirsted after the clean water necessary to make it a great city. If the French were to make Algiers truly modern, they would need to solve this vexing problem of water.
Thus the council summed up one of the ongoing challenges in continuing settler colonialism in Algeria. Environmental projects—battling epidemic disease, drought, locust invasions, and providing/establishing hydraulic control—became important factors in the rise and expansion of the colonial state. In the midst of a crippling environmental disaster, water—access to fresh water for drinking, controlling agricultural infrastructure, and ensuring cities were “hygienic”—became a site of contention in the creation of the modern state. In this paper I will briefly examine how the physical control of water resources, along with discourses about modernity and modern governance, contributed to the expansion of the colonial state by the end of the 1860s.