Chris Sneddon

Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 


Chris Sneddon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College. His research and teaching focus on conflicts over water, with a primary regional focus on the Mekong River basin of Southeast Asia. Additional research interests include the political ecology of water conflicts, the socio-ecological construction of spatial scale, and the politics of sustainability. His recent publications include an examination of the political economy of fisheries in the Mekong basin (in Journal of Agrarian Change) and a study of the linkages between Cold War geopolitics and the global dissemination of the river basin ideal (in Political Geography, 2011).


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.