Accepted paper:

The politics of dams: a framework


Barnaby Dye (University of Manchester)
Tom Lavers (University of Manchester)

Paper short abstract:

We present a novel, multi-spatial conceptual framework to understand the politics of dam building that includes the international, national and local levels. Our approach asserts the preeminent role of nation states and the importance of analysing ideological alongside strategic factors.

Paper long abstract:

This paper sets out a novel conceptual framework to understand the politics of dam building within the context of the water-food-energy-environment nexus. This framework syntheses existing literature to outline the three levels at which dams operate: The international, the national and the sub-national/dam locale. Such an approach asserts the multiple territories at which the major dam-building actors operate and the interlinked geographical levels at which dam politics work. Thus it stresses the importance of understanding each dam actor, from the international financiers like the World Bank to local-level community leaders, as engaged not just in one territorial level, but rather in multi-spatial geographic processes. Through this framework, and in contrast to much of the existing literature, we stress consideration of the national level as the most important shaper of dams' political economy and political ecology as they set the terms of international engagement and dictate the context in which participatory attempts and enforcement of social or environmental standards happen. Relatedly, we also outline the ideological factors that influence dam projects and particularly the role of grand modernising visions of the future. We stress that these co-exist with more recognised strategic concerns to inform the decision to choose dams, decide on their design and influence certain patterns of cost and benefit distribution. Additionally, to further the potential for interdisciplinary research, we produce this framework to help explain to a wider audience why dams should be considered political objects rather than mere technical engineering infrastructure.

panel I3
Dams, development & decision-making