Academic scholarship in the social sciences has, in recent years, documented how water management infrastructure connects and disconnects people and flows, portraying and defining inequalities. The present work contributes to advancing this perspective by undertaking a case study to comparatively examine two irrigation-based water infrastructure systems in Sri Lanka: the tank cascade system and the surface irrigation system. The analysis demonstrates that differences in the layout of the water infrastructure directly contribute to the ways in which downstream communities are socially, economically and politically configured. Specifically, the arrangement of water infrastructure influences the degree of water users’ dependence on each other, the degree of social stratification between head-end and tail-end farmers, and the degree to which water is regarded as an ‘economic’ object. It can be concluded that the technical system of water infrastructure is inextricably bound to society and should, therefore, be considered a socio-material assemblage. Thus, it is important that policy decisions on water infrastructure management treat the structuring of infrastructure as experimental and potentially reversible.
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