Tools of (political) development

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on February 24, 2017

Pulling the strings: While a great deal is known about the social and ecological costs of modern dams, the political dimensions of dam-building have remained largely obscure Image: Sampath Kumar GP   -  sampath kumar gp

Concrete RevolutionChristopher SneddonNon-fictionUniversity of Chicago PressRs 2,700

Christopher Sneddon’s latest book makes a compelling argument in favour of dams as political objects rather than instruments of impartial science

Big dams epitomise development all over the world. The first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, called these gigantic structures “temples of modern India” and the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie hailed big dams as “treasure troves of wealth”. Over 50,000 big dams have been built worldwide ever since the Hoover dam transformed the free-flowing Colorado river into an energy powerhouse. In recent years, however, large dams have come under scrutiny because of social disruptions, cultural dislocation and ecological concerns. Many of these concerns were captured by the World Commission on Dams in 2000.

And yet, these engineering monoliths continue to fascinate several countries including India and China, who persist with dam-building despite these being the cause for lingering water-sharing disputes between riparian states and countries. While a great deal is known about the social and ecological costs of modern dams, the political dimensions of dam-building have remained largely obscure. Water may seem innocuous, but dams have transformed it into a contested resource through acquisition, diversion and control. And it has seemingly been done on purpose. Geographer Christopher Sneddon traces the 20th-century history of dam-building to conclude that “dams have been exceptionally thick with politics”.

Concrete Revolution offers a comprehensive analysis of the motives behind the proliferation of dam-building in the context of former US President Harry Truman’s ‘Four Point Program’ of international development. Technical assistance for dam-building was the primary disguise for staving off the presumed global expansion of communism. What this also did was enhance the capacity of American business interests to increase their global influence and investment opportunities; dam-building as bargaining chip. The global economic crises being experienced in the US at that time was a critical factor in promoting the role of the federal government in massive public works schemes in as many as 100 countries. Without the economic recession in play, this may not have been feasible.

Presenting snapshots of the US Bureau of Reclamation’s early forays into big dam development across several countries, Sneddon makes a compelling argument in favour of dams as political objects rather than instruments of impartial science. It suited the developing world no less, as dam-driven water resource development travelled geographically without offending radically different ideological and cultural contexts. Notable is the manner in which the concrete revolution integrated construction technologies with techno-political networks. The broader constellation of power and influence triggered the so-called ‘political intelligibility’ whereby large dams and river basin development were perceived as a universal ‘fix’ for water resources development across the world.

It is hard not to concur with Sneddon, whose incisive analysis provides fresh insights on understanding the assemblage of networks that maintain and produce large dams. So effective are these networks in promoting large dams that techno-political proponents of hydropower development perceive ecological disruptions as an unfortunate trade-off against the ‘greater good’ of economic development. No wonder, therefore, that the impact of dams on humans and ecosystems are largely ignored by decision makers.

Sneddon takes a step further to suggest that the assemblages of networks that produce and maintain large dams are not only undemocratic but rarely allow any discussions on alternatives to dams. Loaded as this assertion might be, the fact that the governments have overlooked social and ecological disruptions caused by dam-building clearly justifies it. Even the Bureau of Reclamation had sensed this dichotomy. Backed by information on the less-than-desirable impacts of large dams, the Bureau’s assistant commissioner Gilbert Stamm had proclaimed: “We haven’t learned how to apply our vast technical advances to meet the basic values and desires of people.” This statement was made in 1969 by which time the Bureau’s interest in dam-building had started waning, but elsewhere in the world interest in dam-building persists.

Concrete Revolution offers an authoritative enquiry on large dams, and presents analytical insights on the processes and actors involved in nurturing the techno-political networks. But the book leaves the discerning reader to dig deeper to understand the local and national political ecologies and political economies that continue to stick to dam building as a panacea to fill the developmental void. Part of the problem is that governments in developing countries have yet to imagine a ‘world without dams’, whereas river restoration and dam removal has started to gain prominence in the developed world. However, there now exists a mature global movement focused on problematising the economic rationales and socio-ecological effects of large dams.

Concrete Revolution is a bold and ambitious undertaking, which challenges the monopoly of dam-building ideology with in-depth theoretical insights as well as revelations shocking enough to trigger social transformation. More than a scholarly book on large dams, Sneddon has put together an impressive treatise on understanding the undercurrents of the geopolitics of development. It makes for compulsive reading.

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Published on February 24, 2017
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