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Large Dam Development: From Trojan Horse to Pandora's Box.

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Abstract

In recent years, large hydraulic infrastructure has again figured prominently on development agendas. As critics note, the concerns that curbed large dam development towards the end of the 20th century remain valid: the benefits and costs of large dams are unevenly and inequitably distributed, and large dams are in many instances a high risk and high cost strategy. Yet there are important distinctions, we argue, between large dam development in the 20th and 21st centuries. To support this argument, we draw on the Lefebvrian notion of the “production of space”: we conceptually frame dams not as mere objects in space, but also as agents in dynamic and contested spatial strategies—simultaneously material, political, and biopolitical. We deploy this conceptual framework to argue that the context of dam development today is radically different from that of the 20th century, illustrated by two examples: the case of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile and the Nam Theun 2 on the Mekong. 20th century dams, we claim, may be likened to Trojan Horses: while legitimized as mechanisms of economic development, they were also important embodiments of political and ideological spatial strategies—notably the spatial extension of nation-state power. In contrast, large dams of the 21st century are more like Pandora’s Boxes: due to a proliferation of private and quasi-private actors involved in dam development and the blurring of the boundaries between public and private rights and responsibilities, they constitute institutionally opaque and fragmented settings—in which power is distributed and thus the role of the nation-state attenuated. This tremendously complicates the assessment of the responsibilities for and costs, benefits and risks of dam building, and makes transparently and democratically organizing dam governance more difficult than it ever was. We propose the concept of “dam democracy” as an organizing principle for addressing these issues, and enabling equitable and sustainable decision-making regarding large dams in the 21st century.
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Abstract and Keywords
This chapter argues that there are important distinctions between large dam
development in the twentieth century and the twenty-first century by conceptually
framing dams not as mere objects in space but also as agents in dynamic and contested
spatial strategies. This is illustrated by two examples: the Aswan High Dam on the Nile,
and the Nam Theun 2 on the Mekong. Twentieth-century dams may be likened to Trojan
Horses in that they were important embodiments of political and ideological spatial
strategies, while large dams of the twenty-first century are more like Pandora’s Boxes
due to a proliferation of private and quasi-private actors involved in their development.
This complicates the assessment of the responsibilities for the costs, benefits, and risks of
dam building, and makes transparent and democratic organization of dam governance
even more difficult. The concept of “dam democracy” is proposed as an organizing
principle for addressing these issues.
Keywords: dams, development, governance, spatial strategies, Aswan High Dam, Nam Theun 2
Large Dam Development: From Trojan Horse to
Pandora’s Box
Rhodante Ahlers, Margreet Zwarteveen, and Karen Bakker
The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management
Edited by Bent Flyvbjerg
Print Publication Date: Apr 2017
Subject: Business and Management, Business Policy and Strategy
Online Publication Date: Sep 2017 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198732242.013.27
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25.1 Introduction
DAMS are back on the agenda and they are larger than ever. In 2014, 626 hydropower
dams with capacity of over 1MW were under construction and another 3,071 were being
planned (Zarfl et al. 2014). Benefits anticipated by proponents of large dams include
enabling the expansion of irrigated land, improving drinking water supply, controlling
floods, and producing hydropower. Studies—notably the World Commission on Dams
(WCD) report Dams and Development (2000)—have documented that these benefits tend
to be unevenly distributed and are produced at extremely high social and environmental
costs. Large dams are generally justified with projections that are unattainable. Indeed,
large dams have consistently been characterized by what World Bank evaluator Besant-
Jones termed “pervasive appraisal optimism” (cited in Usher, 1997: 61)—an optimism that
is characteristic of megaprojects in general and involves consistently erring on the risky
side of planning by relying on overly positive assessments of future gains and benefits,
while externalizing and underestimating environmental and social–cultural costs (Ansar
et al. 2014; Flyvbjerg, Bruzelius, and Rothengatter 2003; Goldsmith and Hildyard 1984;
Khagram 2003; Klingensmith 2007; Priemus, Flyvbjerg, and Wee 2008; Usher 1997; WCD
2000). Megaprojects, such as large dams, are also typically plagued by principal-agent
problems and rent-seeking provoked by the enormous investments required (Flyvbjerg
2014).
The 45,000 large dams constructed during the twentieth century drastically altered the
world’s rivers, causing tremendous and far-reaching socioecological transformations
(McCully, 1996). Growing opposition coupled with their disappointing performance
resulted in a slowdown of large dam development toward the end of the twentieth
century. Although none of these concerns have disappeared, large hydraulic
infrastructure again figures prominently on development agendas (Zarfl et al.
2014; see also Pomeranz 2009; International Rivers Network 2014). In the five years
following the WCD (2000) report, no less than thirty-five very large dams (with crests
over 150 meters) and three hundred dams with crests over 60 meters started
construction (ICOLD 2006). In Africa, by 2010, nineteen large dams were under
construction (International Rivers Network 2010). The largest, most costly (estimated to
be $80 billion; Cole et al. 2014), and possibly most controversial dam complex proposed—
the Grand Inga project in Democratic Republic of Congo—was approved by the World
Bank in 2013 but has been delayed until 2017. Not only has the moratorium on dam
construction been lifted, but the dams built are larger than ever before. Countries as
diverse as China, Brazil, India, Loa PDR, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Turkey, and the
Democratic Republic of Congo are constructing large dams or are planning to do so.
Governments of these countries mobilize a “right to development” discourse to promote
dams (Hirsch 2010; Islar 2012; Öktem 2002) for flood protection, hydropower production,
desalinization, or a combination of these.
1
2
(p. 557)
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Increased recognition of climate variability has buttressed the popularity of large dams,
as hydropower is framed as an important source of green energy in response to the global
call for alternative, non-fossil energy sources (Ahlers et al. 2015; Imhof and Lanza 2010).
The International Hydropower Association, for example, argues that hydropower’s
operating efficiency and flexibility make it the least-cost option of all clean energy
options, and that its “unique characteristics place it at the center of our future clean
energy systems” (International Hydropower Association 2014: 1). Their putative
“greenness” is also mobilized by International Finance Institutions and institutional
investors to actively support plans for new large hydraulic infrastructures. However, this
interest is also driven by the 7–20% projected returns on investment as infrastructure is
an increasingly important asset class in processes of financialization (Ahlers and Merme
2016; Hildyard 2012; Merme et al. 2014). Furthermore, hydropower projects present
opportunities for economies that seek much needed foreign exchange. In sum,
proponents present hydropower as a straightforward way to exploit the power potential
trapped in uncontrolled rivers, thereby supplying electricity, reducing greenhouse gases,
and attracting foreign currency for sustainable regional development.
The current boom in large infrastructure development, with dams that are much larger
and far more costly than before, is happening in the absence of systematic empirical
evidence on how dams affect poverty, environments, and livelihoods (Dufflo and Pande
2007). Alongside a general lack of comprehensive knowledge on the cumulative impacts
of large dams (Lehner et al. 2011; Vörösmarty et al. 2010; Fletcher 2010), information on
whether potential benefits outweigh the social and environmental costs incurred is sparse
(Ansar et al. 2014). Particularly in the current global environment that is increasingly
uncertain because of climate change, producing such evidence is fraught with
considerable disagreement on how to best predict, assess, and value such impacts (WCD
2000; Cole et al. 2014). Assessments are always context- and concept-dependent, while
the use of varying scalar (space and time) assumptions results in substantially different
outcomes. This, coupled with the fact that those who experience the costs and risks of
large hydraulic infrastructures are usually not the ones who enjoy the benefits and
profits, makes it particularly difficult to achieve consensus about whether and where
dams should be built. Indeed, the assessments and measurements themselves become
part of what is contested in dam development.
With the exception of the references to climate change and green energy, the
arguments used to justify contemporary dams resemble those of the previous century,
with dams being depicted by proponents as a prerequisite for development, and as
unrivaled suppliers of food, water, and energy security (Usher 1997; Bakker 1999; WCD
2000; Ledec and Quintero 2003; Scudder 2005; Briscoe 2010; Hirsch 2010). This chapter,
however, shows that the current century provides a very different context for dam
development than the twentieth century. Dam projects today involve a more diverse set of
actors with distinct and at times contradicting interests as the boundaries between
public, private, and non-governmental sectors have blurred. In addition, the uncertainties
of climate change further complicate dam development. The proliferation of actors and
the hazy relations between them in the context of climate variability have made the
(p. 558)
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assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks of dam building increasingly difficult and
contentious. Not only does this complicate transparency and democracy of dam
governance, it makes it extremely urgent.
To explore how dam development is intrinsically political, we use a Lefebvrian analysis of
the “production of space” to define dams not as objects in space but as agents in spatial
strategies and as sites of continued and dynamic struggles. These struggles happen
through combined technological, discursive, and institutional means, and include
disagreements about the nature and purpose of “development.” A conceptualization of
nature, technology, and society as mutually constituted informs this theorization, thereby
shifting questions of dam design and development from the indisputable domains of
nature, biology, or technology—domains only accessible by an exclusive group of experts
—to the contingent domains of society and politics. This opens up these questions for
debate and widens definitions of expertise, thereby also prompting the need to rethink to
what extent large hydraulic infrastructures can best be regulated and controlled
(Zwarteveen 2015).
We first elaborate our Lefebvrian theorization of the role of dams in producing particular
landscapes, and then proceed with a characterization of twentieth-century dams as
Trojan Horses. Drawing in particular on the example of the Egyptian Aswan High Dam,
we show how large dams, legitimized as bringers of economic development, were carriers
of political and ideological spatial strategies. Dam development in the twenty-first
century is a process better captured as a Pandora’s Box, revealing complex financial
flows and intricate networks of public and private actors seeking diverse objectives, as
illustrated by an example from the Mekong. We conclude the chapter by carving out the
contemporary landscape of dam development and the implications for democratic
governance.
25.2 Dam Building as the Production of Space
Dams carry meaning in multiple ways. They demonstrate how unruly “nature” can be
conquered and “idle” resources exploited to advance civilization; they render visible
the great feats of engineering and the unlimited possibilities of technology; and
they are landmarks on a nation’s path to development. As Cullather (2002: 521) phrased
it: “For Nehru, for Zahir Shah, for China today, the great blank wall of a dam was a
screen on which they would project the future.” Their impressive visual presence makes
dams into excellent prestige projects to symbolize the might of ruling powers, and with it,
create a national image of progress, prosperity, and strength (Kaika 2006; Swyngedouw
1999). From the moment they are conceived, dams set in motion a series of processes of
social and biophysical reordering, whereby certain avenues for change are created and
others foreclosed, none of which is fully predictable or controllable.
(p. 559)
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To make sense of the transformations that dams provoke, we draw on the work of Henri
Lefebvre (1991) regarding the production of space. Lefebvre’s ambition was to reveal and
thus question the ideology and politics underlying urban design, illuminating how it is
always historically rooted, riddled with contradictions, and continuously contested in
everyday life (Goonewardena et al. 2008). Following Lefebvre, we conceptualize large
hydraulic infrastructures as the production and transformation of particular sociospatial
relations through perpetual, conflict-laden interactions among opposed spatial strategies
(Brenner and Elder 2009: 367). In not ontologically separating the biophysical system
from the social or technological system, this theorization positively resonates with that of
other critical environmental scholars who aspire to rethink society–nature relations by
understanding nature and society not as two distinct phenomena or domains, but as
always already implied in each other. Such theorizations thus propose considering water,
people, and infrastructure in their mutual interactions, positing that they exist and indeed
“are” because of and through each other (Haraway 1991; Moore 2011), thereby
collapsing “fields” that are usually apprehended separately (Swyngedouw 1999: 318).
Water scholars have proposed terms such as “waterscapes” (Swyngedouw 1999; Baviskar
2007), “hydrosocial networks” (Bakker 2010), or “hydrosocial cycles” (Linton and Budds
2014) to express the notion that river or groundwater trajectories, as well as the resulting
floods or scarcities, are not natural processes but the outcome of specific histories and
practices of water resources exploitation or “development.” Large dams have been
central in the reconfiguration of landscapes by simultaneously redirecting flows (social
and ecological) and reordering societies (institutionally, politically, economically, and
culturally) (Harvey 1996; Meehan 2013; Scott 1998).
By questioning the nature–culture (or technology–society) divide, these ontologies also
question the very foundations of scientific knowledge production. Conceptualizing dams
as the contested production of space demystifies the possibility to see and know (the
impacts of) large dams from an unidentified or objective position—what Haraway (1991)
calls the god-trick: “the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and
responsibility.” This has important implications for ways of thinking about and organizing
dam governance, or for institutionally regulating and containing the environmental and
social impacts of dams. For one, the responsibility and authority for assessing such
impacts cannot be simply relegated to scientific experts, as norms of scientific objectivity
that are anchored in the possibility to separate nature from society (and science from
politics) do not apply. Because any assessment of the social and environmental
impacts of large dams is context- and concept-dependent, and a function of scalar and
temporal assumptions used, experts’ assessments can never be totally independent.
The impact of dams, whether positive or negative, reaches far beyond the (social,
political, or biogeophysical) moment and location in which they were constructed.
Already before dams are constructed and brought into operation, they are conceived and
planned, the infrastructure designed, the material and financial needs gathered and
applied, the political support assured, and a constituency arranged. A dam is conceived
with a particular purpose and location in mind by particular actors with interests that
may be social, economic, or political. Rather than an empty space void of practice,
(p. 560)
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meaning, or ideals, this location is a river basin, where people live, fish swim, birds fly,
and water flows. At the moment of construction, the scientists and engineers planning the
hydraulic structure have already redesigned the landscape in their imagination and on
their drawing tables: flowing water courses are conceived as potential volumetric
quantities to be managed as inputs for hydropower generation or irrigated crop
production. Through their visions and designs, they thus redefine the river as a bundle of
potential resources lying idle, and wasted if not used.
This biophysical reordering is accompanied with an institutional reordering, often
entailing the move of water rights and water decision-making powers from local
organizations to new ones at basin, national, or regional scales. As people, roads,
structures, flora, and fauna are moved or inundated, previously unconnected places now
become part of an envisioned institutional construct called a river basin. Consequently,
the landscape (or waterscape) takes on a different purpose and thereby a different
meaning, while still carrying institutional and material legacies from the past, both in the
form of more or less visible material or social manifestations and in the form of ideas or
values (Lefebvre 1976; Kogan 2013). The redistribution of stakes, meanings, powers, and
responsibilities that this transformation of the waterscape entails does not stop or
stabilize after construction, but often continues through the politics of dam operation
decisions. Rather than a mere technical or neutral mathematical equation or model, the
operation of dams tends to become the playing ground of continued negotiations and
bargaining about whose needs get recognized and whose demands are met, about land
and water rights and competing sources of livelihood.
Common to large dam projects is that those most directly experiencing the effects and
impacts have least influence on dam operation decisions, often because they already have
been rendered relatively powerless and voiceless through the process of dam design and
construction. Initial design choices tend to favor one or several uses of water over others.
Dam construction, by literally pouring these choices into concrete, functions as a
continuous and self-enforcing mechanism to iteratively endow the stakes of the initial
decision makers. The degree of freedom for dam operation to absorb possible new stakes
or adapt to a changed equilibrium of interests are severely limited because of the
inflexible nature and sheer size of dams. Upon reaching the end of its operational utility,
these structures demand decommissioning—an issue that is currently becoming more
urgent given the age of many twentieth-century dams. The cost of decommissioning have
generally been left out of many, if not all, original cost–benefit analyses, and the
useful life of these structures is often much shorter than anticipated. Some of these
dams find themselves on arid riverbeds and have lost all possible utility, while others hold
sediment and water loads that may be toxic or hazardous in other ways. Decommissioning
may be as disruptive as the initial placement of the dam itself.
To conclude, we approach and conceptualize large hydraulic infrastructures as active
agents in continuous and dynamic processes of space production. These are processes in
which social practices and meanings interact with biophysical materialities, resulting in
the emergence of new landscapes that carry crystallizations of the past. Embodying
(p. 561)
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struggles over desired practices, ideals, and meaning, the outcomes are necessarily
always and everywhere contested. Lefebvre emphasizes the relations between the
material, mental, and social dimension of space, or in his words between a perceived,
conceived, and lived landscape. This defies overtly structuralist notions of the production
of space as being one of (capitalist) design, but also usefully rejects positivist notions of
innocent “natural” rearrangements. Lefebvre argues that it is in the heterogeneity of
everyday practices and experience that “lived space” is produced, with capital
reproducing itself in contradictory and simultaneously contested ways. Lived space is
therefore never a linear outcome of conceived space, which is one reason why it defies
accurate forecasting. Large dams concretize the relational and dialectical nature of the
triad as they are produced by and embedded in, and by their conception and construction
influence sociopolitical and socioeconomic networks in contradictory ways. They mobilize
networks of capital, knowledge, and (geo)politics, and are pivots in spatially huge
landscape transformations, not only spanning the rural and urban landscape, but also
intimately connecting them.
25.3 Twentieth-Century Dam Building: Trojan
Horses
The twentieth century witnessed an explosion of dam construction. Where in the
nineteenth and early twentieth century dams were developed primarily by private actors,
this rapidly changed by the mid-1920s, when both the former Soviet Union and the
United States began to pour public money into dams. The post-World War II era showed a
particularly rapid increase owing to a rise in Asian dam building, post-colonial projects,
and the availability of surplus US military dollars that sought investment. Figure 25.1
shows the proliferation of large dams over the century. In the 1950s, Nasser in Egypt
spoke of dams as pyramids for the living, and Nehru in India referred to dams as temples
of modern India. Both were in the midst of post-colonial nation-building, making it easy
to read dams as a paradigmatic expression of the modernity that characterized the era:
the drive toward controlling nature, the belief in technological solutions for social ills,
and the promotion of a mimetic vision of Western society as the only image of
civilization, with the nation-state as the privileged state form (Cullather 2002;
Klingensmith 2007). Dams were allotted beneficial powers in solving a multitude of
problems: “In a sense, it is indeed impossible for a country to have development without
dams, as both are part of the same discourse” (Baghel and Nüsser 2010: 241, after
Escobar 1995).
4
5
(p. 562)
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A more in-depth review of
the historic trajectories of
dam building in the
twentieth century reveals
that dam dynamics not
only expressed and
harnessed modernist and
post-colonial energies, but
were also importantly
shaped by cold war
geopolitical maneuvering,
in addition to being
influenced by global
markets and regional politics (Ahlers et al. 2014; Tucker 2010). As large dams demand
substantial capital, they were important sites of the accumulation and absorption of
surplus capital, constituting what David Harvey termed spatiotemporal fixes of capital.
Hence, the surge in dam building after World War II and in the 1970s can largely be
explained by how it allowed absorbing accumulated US “war dollars” and the
“petrodollars” from oil-producing nations that were sitting “idle” in Western banks. The
investment of these large sums of capital, in what in the twentieth century were primarily
public projects, demanded substantial involvement of the state, and with it, the aid
industry. During the 1970s and 1980s, when dam building in developed countries had
significantly slowed down or stopped altogether, dams were packaged as aid by most
OECD countries. This meant that they were not only accompanied by a series of
conditionalities, but also generated new foreign markets for the increasingly redundant
domestic dam industry (Usher 1997). Hence, dams facilitated the absorption of surplus
capital, the expansion of the donor industries, and the increase of debt for the global
South.
Characteristic of this period of dam development was that it was based on, and
convincingly celebrated, the ability of engineers to harness natural resources for the
benefit of development and civilization—a celebration that hinged on a representation of
the landscape as a bundle of resources wasted if not brought under control. The
proposed reordering of the landscape went accompanied with transformations in the
relations of (re)production and consumption to better align them with purposes of capital
accumulation and political control. This process of commensuration and crafting
coherence forcefully ignored and subsequently reshaped existing sociocultural
differences. Large dams were used to produce and showcase the unity and modernity of
newborn or newly assembled nations, simultaneously legitimizing and consolidating the
authority of the regime (Klingensmith 2007; Swyngedouw 2007; Westerman 2011). These
large hydraulic structures thus were are an intrinsic part of profound national and
international political projects to centralize and rescale control over water resources, and
with it, advance a particular societal order. “Through this process, the symbolic richness
and creative autonomy of daily life are progressively eviscerated and replaced by the
Click to view larger
Figure 25.1 Construction of dams by decade during
the twentieth century.
(From World Commission on Dams 2000.)
6
(p. 563)
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homogenization and fragmentation of a technocratic rationality projected onto reality
through the planned production of space” (Wilson 2011: 997–8). In sum, large dams as
vehicles of development were very like Trojan horses, embodying far more than
instruments for water storage.
The Aswan High Dam (AHD) in Egypt is a good example of twentieth-century dam
development. Planned with the explicit purpose of enabling a shift from basin irrigation to
perennial irrigation, and in the process altering agricultural relations of production from
a smallholder system to one based on owner–tenant relations, its construction was
finalized in 1970. New hydraulic structures, the extension of the area irrigated, and an
increased cropping intensity (by extending the season through the control of flooding)
were accompanied with the establishment of private property rights to land and water,
creating a propertied class alongside a landless class dependent on wages (Smit
forthcoming; Tignor 1966). The project clearly embodied a spatial project in which
control over “nature” was accompanied by a vision of progress and a particular ordering
of society. As Cromer noted in 1908 (cited in Tvedt 2004: 29): “When eventually the
waters of the Nile, from the Lakes to the sea, are brought fully under control, it will be
possible to boast that Man, in this case the Englishman, has turned the gifts of Nature to
the best possible Advantage.” When Egypt became independent in 1922, the dam was
reinvented to serve Egypt’s autonomy vis-à-vis Britain, which still controlled upstream
Sudan and the upper White Nile. With a reservoir that could hold two years of Nile flow,
upstream projects to store water for Egypt would become obsolete. The dam now
symbolized the break from the colonial past, and served as a landmark for shifting control
of the Nile toward Egypt (Mitchell 2002).
Internal political struggles, national uprisings in response to increasing food prices, and
the militarization of the Suez Canal by the British in response to the war in Palestine
triggered a chain of events that finally resulted in the replacement of the monarch by a
military revolutionary command council. Along with the promise of the new and larger
Aswan dam, the council introduced land reform and the nationalization of industries. The
geopolitical context of upstream countries contesting British imperialism and the
intensification of the Cold War encouraged the British and the United States to positively
react to President Nasser’s request for funding the AHD, as this would allow them
to secure their influence in the region. Even though Nasser agreed to the
conditions set by the World Bank, the United States finally withdrew, with the remark that
“Egypt should get along for the time being with projects less monumental than the Aswan
Dam” (Borzutzky and Berger 2010: 84). In response, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal
to use its revenues to construct the dam (Little 1965), and opened the doors to Soviet
Union finance and engineers. After signing the agreement with the new military regime
in Sudan, the construction of AHD could begin.
(p. 564) 7
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By creating a buffer
against floods, drought,
and upstream
interference, the AHD
materialized Egypt’s claim.
It simultaneously altered
and regulated the river’s
regime (shown in Figure
25.2), and gave its
government far-reaching
means to control the river.
Nevertheless, water
logging and salinity
plagued the delta, and the hydropower facility working at suboptimum levels produced
energy primarily for the fertilizer industry. The resulting debt repayment drew Egypt into
a severe financial crisis.
In sum, the AHD was mobilized in a variety of spatial strategies for territorial and
hydraulic reordering that favored and actively sought to produce a particular scientific,
ideological, and political conception of the landscape. Central, and characteristic of the
twentieth century, was the desire to extend state space and advance capitalist relations of
production through centrally managed irrigation systems, the accompanying
nationalization and homogenization of land and water rights that transformed social
relations of agricultural production, and the production of energy for industry and
consumption. The case shows how the AHD represents a desired control over a landscape
(biophysically, as well as socially), while simultaneously serving to visualize and enable
this control (Warner 2013), with the nation-state as the privileged format of rule. As the
tangible material embodiment of political economic relations, the dam clearly reveals
modernity’s deeply geographical project: taming unruly nature and unruly people,
establishing a particular organization of society, and legitimizing new social relations of
production. The case also shows that the landscape is not so easily ruled and that the
technology inserted into and merging with the historical conditions of the
landscape produces new and, to a certain extent, unpredictable formations.
Click to view larger
Figure 25.2 Change in monthly downstream flows
owing to Aswan High Dam.
(From Sutcliffe et al. 1999.)
8
9
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25.4 Twenty-First-Century Dams: Pandora’s
Boxes
The current conjuncture around dams is very different from that of the twentieth century,
primarily because financialization and globalization have structurally transformed the
relations between the social and the biogeophysical, while advances in technology have
compressed space and time (Harvey 1996; Smith 2006). The blurring boundaries between
public and private actors in dam development, new processes of financialization, and
increasing global unsettledness and uncertainties have together rendered the governance
of dams both more urgent and more difficult than ever. We illustrate these with a case
study of the Nam Theun 2 Dam in Laos.
The Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC) involves the largest tributary dam in the
Mekong Basin with an installed capacity of 1070MW. Completed in 2010, it is not only
known as the most complex public–private partnership in the history of dam development
(Wong 2010), but is also hailed for the collaboration between the World Bank and the
Government of Laos on development objectives (Baird et al. 2015) and is an award-
winning prototype for the best financial construction in the Asia–Pacific region (Merme et
al. 2014). A Power Purchase Agreement signed between the power company and the
electricity facilities determined that 95% of the energy produced is destined for Thailand
and the remainder 5% for Laotian domestic consumption.
Since 2011, the company has been owned by three parties: the French EDF international,
the Laotian State Enterprise, and the Thai Electricity Generating Public Company.
Twenty-seven parties together financed the US$1.45-billion project, with a debt:equity
ratio of around 70:30 (Ward 2010). Merme et al. (2014: 23) explain that the equity
investors buy shares in the power company, and when enough equity is secured, debt
financiers lend or secure the necessary remainder. The shareholders financed the equity
package through loans, credits, and grants, while financial institutions, such as
development banks and private commercial banks, finance and support the debt package
with loans and guarantees. Figure 25.3 shows this construction of financial flows. The
Laotian government eased labor regulations and provided investment incentives to
attract international capital, such as extensive tax exemptions, and special import duty
rates for materials, equipment, and supplies (Merme et al. 2014). Public-sector finance
was limited but necessary for the guarantees that commercial investors demand and that
Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs) and Export Credit Agencies (ECAs) provide.
Under the Build–Own–Operate–Transfer (BOOT) arrangement, the consortium holding
NTPC is allowed to develop, finance, construct, and operate the dam for a concession
period of twenty-five years.
11
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The rights and
obligations for both the
government and the NTPC
are specified in the
Concession Agreement,
which stipulates that
NTPC controls all water
management decisions
related to NT2. Except for
minimum water release
obligations and
restrictions, it has
exclusive water rights over
the flows of the Nam
Theun and several other
rivers. Even though the consortium is a public–private partnership, the full Concession
Agreement is confidential. Full details of the transfer are not open to public scrutiny, such
as the dam’s operating cost, liabilities, or water management priorities, thus preventing
public accountability (Probe International 2004). Potential social and environmental
impacts, mitigation, compensation, and restoration measures have been identified, but
Mathews (2012) and International Rivers Network (2010) have reported a range of
violations. Baird et al. (2015) show that the concession agreement does not obligate
investors to pay the full costs of mitigation and compensation for downstream
communities, and only a single one-time development intervention and minimal
compensation were deemed sufficient to compensate for long-term ongoing impacts. In
addition, the lifetime of the consortium is only twenty-five years. This means that the
Laotian government is left to deal with the longer-term negative consequences of the
dams, including the loss of fisheries, changing flood regimes, and the general disruption
of socioeconomic and ecosystemic processes (Smits 2011; WCD 2000; Wong 2010).
It is difficult, if not impossible, to hold the dam financers and developers accountable for
their actions, and they have no obligation to share information with the public. Under
national and international commercial law, all contracts and related documents are
confidential, with only the parties to the contract having full access to them. Hence,
information concerning equity investments by the sponsors (core capital and loans) and
private debt providers (ECA, banks, and other financial lenders) is not accessible. Only
the documents concerning the host utility’s involvement in dam building through loans
and grants and the participation of public debt providers are publicly available.
The NT2 case is illustrative of how globally, in the past decade, large dams have
increasingly been financed by private investors rather than the public sector (Briscoe
1999; Hildyard 2012; Hirsch 2010; Middleton 2009; Molle, Foran, and Käkönen 2009;
Schultz 2002), facilitated by neoliberal reforms that since the 1980s have aimed to create
competitive markets in the energy sector through corporatization, commercialization, and
privatization. New global financial centers have developed (Shanghai, Singapore, Kuala
Click to view larger
Figure 25.3 Financial flows in dam building.
(From Merme et al. 2014.)
(p. 567)
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Lumpur, and São Paulo), and regional economies have grown and consolidated, such as
ASEAN and MERCOSUR. Combined with continuous (regional) economic growth during
the last decade, this now makes the global South better placed to cofinance dams,
facilitating the unilateral development of dams by accessing the required financial
investments on the private market. In 2013, hydropower worth approximately US$35
billion in investment came on stream (Frankfurt School–UNEP Centre 2014).
In the Mekong, the US$760-million Nam Ngum 2 dam and the US$3.8-billion Xayaburi
dam were fully financed by regional commercial banks and export credit agencies
(Middleton 2009; BankTrack 2013; Matthews 2012). Merme et al. (2014) explain that
compared to the high potential benefits and the conditions for investment facilitated by
tax breaks, easing of trade rules, and obligations, the risks involved are limited. Not only
do debt investments run over a relatively short period, but also risks are
primarily borne by the national host, with IFIs, such as the WB and the ADB, providing
political risk protection. Developers favor private investors because they carry fewer
obligations in comparison with public or multilateral funding (Matthews 2012) that
conditions their loans with social and environmental mitigation. Finally, the complexity of
large infrastructure projects provides numerous possibilities for developing a myriad
financial instruments that almost render the production of power to the sideline (Hildyard
2012; Lapavitsas 2013).
The NT2 dam is illustrative for contemporary dam development dynamics, and their
incorporation in processes of financialization. Demands for renewable energy and targets
set to reach these generate investment opportunities. Increasingly, diverse financial
institutions are scanning strategic sectors, such as water, in which to lodge the surplus
capital they control. Which project to invest in, and via which financial instruments, is
to a significant extent driven by the geography of resource capture and geopolitical
relations. Increasing privatization and financialization of large-scale infrastructure has
shifted dam planning, construction, ownership, and operation from the public to the
private sphere. Consequently, this has decentered the role of the International Financial
Institutions, the multilateral development banks, and the donor community, and with
them their safeguards systems and environmental health-and-safety standards. Moreover,
even though a large number of international standards have been put in place to ensure a
series of safeguards, the system is far from foolproof and is easily eluded owing to a lack
of transparency that undermines external accountability (Hildyard 2012; Matthews 2012;
Merme, et al. 2014; Middleton 2009; Wright 2012). The increased merging of the public
and private, and the proliferation of stakeholders at multiple scales, are illustrative of the
diffusion of governance characterizing dam-building coalitions in the twenty-first century.
This leads to a situation where nobody oversees or understands the whole picture at any
given point in time or location. While webs of agile and rapid financial flows and products
thus rapidly produce megaspatial transformations with huge temporal impacts, their
opacity and fragmentation effectively obfuscates possibilities for democratic decision
making and accountability. This is problematic for three reasons. First, because financial
interests do not necessarily or automatically align with the priorities of food security,
access to water, or ecosystem integrity. Second, because decision-making institutions that
(p. 568)
13
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govern dams and their impacts are disconnected in time and space. Third, the large
investments required hijack national budgets over a long period of time, shifting public
agency interest from public concerns to private gains.
This raises urgent questions of/for dam governance and democracy. What, for instance, is
the level of public sector control over decisions shaping local livelihood security and
environmental sustainability when these decisions are taken with minimal public
involvement and in a context of dependency? How can effective forms of public
accountability be institutionally regulated when the private-sector actors involved have a
legal right to secrecy? In what follows, we offer some tentative answers to these
questions.
25.5 Conclusion
We have shown how twentieth-century dams can be likened to Trojan Horses, legitimated
as mechanisms of economic development while simultaneously operating as purveyors of
political and ideological spatial strategies, reordering landscapes by taming
unpredictable water flows as part of projects of expanding state space, and advancing
capitalist relations of production. Dam building in the twentieth century thus facilitated
“civilizing” and “normalizing” unruly communities, with society being reorganized
through the thorough redefinition and delocalization of land and water rights. Precisely
because dams both manifested and further established a concentration of political and
economic powers able to redefine landscapes as homogenous and coherent (Lefebvre
1991: 352), contestation remained both geographically, as well as disciplinarily
fragmented.
The actors driving dam development during the twentieth century were relatively easy to
identify: public governance and financing organizations at national and international
levels that used dams as the tangible material embodiment of their powers. Although
difficult to challenge precisely because of these powers, they were conspicuously visible,
and were usually embedded within or associated with the nation-state. In contrast, those
responsible for contemporary dam development are much less easy to trace and find, as
they are no longer primarily located in state agencies bound to some kind of
accountability to a broader public. Indeed, dam building can now be characterized more
as a Pandora’s Box: it is the business of a multitude of actors and parties, with
responsibilities for dam financing, building, and operation increasingly being assumed by
private companies and financial agencies. The ever widening and globalizing dispersion
of dam-building responsibilities and powers, coupled with a general absence of publicly
available and reliable information, makes it difficult to unequivocally identify those
responsible for dam construction and financing. This also makes it challenging to hold
anyone accountable for the negative socioecological impacts of a dam, or to institutionally
regulate accountability. Relying on ever more sophisticated “objective” information and
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participatory protocols to guarantee that dams are sustainable and socially beneficial will
only partly fill this democratic void.
Hence, where the Trojan Horses were pivotal in ostentatiously visible geopolitical spatial
strategies and tactics, the Pandora’s Boxes represent a more complex conjuncture of
spatial tactics that combine concealed motives of capital accumulation and financial
speculation with open declarations of creating prosperity through economic development
and adapting to climate change by harnessing green energy. Neoliberalization,
accompanied by rapid technological advances, has radically altered both the dynamics of
dam development, as well as the institutional possibilities for regulation and control.
Financialization, climate variability, and uncertainties; a proliferation of private and
quasi-private actors; and the blurring of the boundaries between public and private rights
and responsibilities produce a governance setting that is more complex, opaque,
and fragmented. It is certainly a setting and context in which dam development is much
less public, because of the institutional room provided to protect private-sector
competitiveness. Simultaneously, these larger-than-ever dams primarily geared for
hydropower are confronted with a global community that is more than ever intimately
connected. These connections facilitate the undemocratic processes of financialization
that produce uneven development, but also carry great potential for disrupting these by
using their very speed and agility for new networks of contestation.
We contend that safeguarding sustainable and equitable hydropower development and
more democratic forms of dam governance will depend importantly on creatively and
strategically tapping into this potential to forge new practices of governance, including
mechanisms of transparency and accountability. This demands the effective organization
of multiscalar alliances and coalitions between those experiencing and concerned about
dam impacts. But it also requires active efforts to develop dam literacy and numeracy to
allow wider distribution and discussion about what these impacts are, and educating
those whose pension funds are invested in these projects. Here, sharing and mixing
diverse sources of information and developing interdisciplinary knowledge is crucial,
because the complexity and unpredictability of the socionatural dynamics provoked by
dams defies straightforward predictions or assessments. The large distances in time and
space between design and impact, and the disconnect between those who benefit from
dam development and those who directly experience the consequences, make dam
development a particularly wicked problem situation.
We argue that a Lefebvrian analysis of large dams and associated infrastructural
development plans offer opportunities to think through these issues in a grounded and
interdisciplinary manner. Lessons from the past show that dams are a particularly high-
risk and high-cost affair, with benefits and costs unevenly and inequitable distributed.
However, equally important, we argue that analysis of spatial strategies (such as the
conceptual triad of the lived, perceived, and conceived dimensions of space) can usefully
complement analyses of the complex and contextual politics of specific dam projects.
(p. 570)
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Rather than developing objectified criteria for “good dams” as a way to contain negative
environmental effects, we call for more effort to be invested in creating “dam
democracy”: the development and distribution of analytical expertise on the full scope of
costs and benefits of dams, both short-term and long-term. Unless forms of public
accountability are effectively organized, and unless there are political possibilities for
civil society groups to formulate and articulate alternative representations of the
landscape, the building of large dams should be put on hold. Dam development cannot
continue to be the monopoly of those who reap the short-term benefits, while others bear
the costs—both now and in the future.
In short, this chapter has called for new ways of organizing “dissent” against large dams.
To some degree, this may be thought of as the institutional organization (or channeling)
of dissent, via which civil society may negotiate the distribution of costs and benefits of
large dams on a more level playing field. This dissent should be viewed, we
argue, as a normal and indeed useful and important part of the decision-making process
regarding large dams. Our proposal thus calls for a more far-reaching governance
transformation, beyond the (necessary but insufficient) development of globally valid and
objectified criteria for “good dams.” While useful, we argue that it is necessary and
urgent to invest more effort in creating dam democracy—a concept that hinges on
accepting the claim that dams will always be contested, and implies the necessity of
embedding good governance practices within dam funding and development processes
across multiple scales and jurisdictions. Dam democracy, as our analysis has suggested,
requires simultaneous efforts to develop and enable dam numeracy and literacy in a
context of transparency—which we suggest will lead to more equitable and sustainable
outcomes for the future.
Acknowledgments
Much of the work presented here is the result of research and discussions with Ineke
Kleemans on twentieth-century dam development, with Vincent Merme on the Mekong
and financialization, and with Ineke Kleemans and Hermen Smit on the Aswan High Dam.
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Notes:
(1.) There is some disagreement about the definition of large. We follow the definition the
World Commission of Dams applied and which comes from the International Commission
on Large Dams. An overview of why such a classification is problematic is provided by
Poff and Hart (2002).
(2.) For recent publications expressing these concerns, see for instance Fearnside (2005);
Huber and Joshi (2015); Lehnder et al. (2009); Merme et al. (2014); Nilsson et al. (2005);
Obosu-Mensah (1996); Öktem (2002); Showers (2009); WWF (2003); WWF (2013).
(3.) The accompanying faster and larger than anticipated loss in storage capacity, as
Pomeranz (2009: 208) ironically points out for dams in the Himalaya region, is now used
as an argument in itself for building more dams.
(4.) Fahim (1981: 233).
(5.) Nehru (1964); The Hindu (1957), in Klingensmith (2007: 254, 263).
(6.) The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. At the time of Usher’s
writing these were the original Member countries of the OECD; Austria, Belgium,
Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom,
and the United States. Plus the following countries that became members subsequently:
Japan (1964), Finland (1969), Australia (1971), New Zealand (1973), Mexico (1994), the
Czech Republic (1995), Hungary (1996), Poland (1996), and the Republic of Korea (1996).
(7.) Egypt had in the autumn of 1955 initially refused a Soviet offer as negotiations with
the United States and the World Bank had reached an advanced stage by then (Biswas
and Tortajada 2004).
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(8.) Swyngedouw (1999) shows with far more detail how dams are used in similar spatial
strategies in Franco’s hydraulic plans in Spain. Another example is Frank Westerman’s
Engineers of the Soul (2011) for the hydraulic engineering in the Soviet Union.
(9.) For example, by introducing transferable land/water rights, the market as primary
exchange, and agrarian industrial production.
(10.) This process is far from straightforward, historically specific and always contested
as the case of Egypt shows. Even more so by the case of Afghanistan (Ahlers et al. 2014)
where dam development by both the United States and the then Soviet Union were
negotiated by a government seeking to unify a fragmented collection of ethnically diverse
community into a nation-state.
(11.) For example, the possibilities of genetically modified organisms, the development of
bio fuels, and the commodification and enclosure of remaining commons (such as forests,
oceans, land/water rights, and so on).
(12.) The Environmental Assessment and Management Plan, the Resettlement Action
Plan, and the Social and Environmental Management Framework and Operational Plan.
(13.) The April 2015 World Water Council/OECD report posits that the water sector
should tap into the trillions of US$ that banks, pension funds, insurance firms, and
sovereign wealth funds hold.
(14.) To mention but a few: the Equator Principles, Hydropower Sustainability
Assessment Forum Protocol, United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment, WCD
standards, International Finance Corporation Performance Standards, and WB safeguard
policies.
Rhodante Ahlers
Rhodante Ahlers is an Independent Researcher
Margreet Zwarteveen
Margreet Zwarteveen is Professor of Water Governance, UNESCO-IHE
Karen Bakker
Karen Bakker is a Professor, Canada Research Chair, and Founding Director of the
Program on Water Governance at the University of British Columbia
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... The dominant understanding that has emerged has linked water security to the supposed need to build a dam-the Waimea Community Dam-which began construction in 2019. Dams have always been accompanied by narratives and discourses to explain and justify their construction and associated environmental and social costs (Ahlers et al., 2017). In this article, we are particularly interested in how different understandings of water security have been articulated and mobilised around the Waimea Community Dam. ...
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