Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
Coleen Fox is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College. Her research and teaching focus on conflict and cooperation over water resources, with a particular focus on the Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia. The research draws on political ecology and critical geopolitics to better understand the socio-political aspects of environmental alteration. Her most recent research focuses on the social dimensions of dam removal in New England.
The Era of Big Dam Building: It Ain’t Over ‘Till It’s Over
In 1998, Sec. of Interior Bruce Babbit stood atop the McPherrin Dam and with the quick blow of a sledgehammer, he simultaneously began dismantling the dam and ushered in what he called “the end of the era of big dam building.” Although this era might be tapering off within the United States, in many ways, it is just beginning internationally. Although the definition of “large dam” remains ambiguous, the International Commission of Large Dams (ICOLD) indicates that there are > 45,000 large dams globally with thousands more planned for impending construction, especially in China, South East Asia, South America, and Africa. These large dams fragment watersheds, generate significant impacts on local and regional fisheries, and affect the livelihoods of millions. In this paper, we present the biophysical and environmental impacts associated with large dams – including both upstream and downstream effects—and further discuss the social context for existing and currently planned large dams. Although these large hydropower dams are often presented as “clean” energy, we contend that because of the ecological and social impacts of the existing and planned large dams, they are not necessarily “green”.
The New Politics of Mekong Hydro-Development
For more than half a century, the Mekong River basin has been the site of multiple — and often competing — scalar narratives and strategies around water governance. Planners and architects of basin development, ranging from the US Bureau of Reclamation to the Asian Development Bank, have constructed, portrayed and ‘experienced’ the basin scale as the preferred scale of development since the 1950s. The dominant ‘basin narrative’ in the Mekong River system has been deeply intertwined with narratives of modernization, industrialization and territorialization as states sought to increase their mastery of water flows and to thereby create a ‘modern’ river basin. More recent efforts by intergovernmental organizations, international conservation organizations, regional advocacy networks, and civil society reveal a different version of the basin narrative, one that places livelihoods and the actual lived experiences of basin communities at the forefront. We use these competing narratives as a lens through which to better understand past and emerging politics around water in the basin. Specifically, we show how the accelerated biophysical transformation of the river, brought about by the shift from tributary to mainstream dams, is changing the nature of oppositional politics. We argue that past efforts to create a counter narrative — based on the creation of a ‘watershed identity’ linking marginalized communities across political borders — have been largely ineffective, in part because communities’ lived experiences of ecosystem change (and the sources of those changes) were primarily local, occurring at the sub-basin scale. Now, with the construction of the Xayaburi dam on the mainstream (and the specter of more mainstream dams) we see a new politics of Mekong development emerging, one that is deeply intertwined with the accelerated biophysical transformation of the river. Put simply, the relationship between scale, identity, and politics in the Mekong is constantly shifting and evolving, and the material transformation of the river is central to understanding these processes.
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