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How the use of water is apportioned between actual and potential users is a matter of law and custom, water law and traditional uses of water. Until there is not enough water to fulfill all actual or potential uses there is no issue, but with the rise of cities and irrigated agriculture in ancient times the questions of how water is to be apportioned becomes a potential issue, potential because often such questions were simply settled by fiat of the ruler. Such a decision process is the premise of the despotic hydraulic empire in Karl A. Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. As applied to the modern world, in a despotic realm, decisions regarding water use may be determined by bureaucratic fiat,[1] But where democracy prevails decisions are made by some form of water law, a process heavily influenced by traditional and potential water users.

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