Reviving Dams: A Relational Technopolitics of Hydropower in the Himalaya

Change log

By the end of the 20th century, mega dams were no longer popular with donors, due to growing socio-environmental opposition; a poor record in terms of outcomes and profitability; and the turn to governance and the ‘soft wiring’ of development amongst donors. However, interest in mega dams has revived, and they are now firmly back on the agenda of international donor agencies and governments in the Global South. The Himalayan region is one of the most iconic sites for contemporary mega-dam infrastructure development, despite ecological precarity, concerns around the increasing intensity and frequency of infrastructure hazards, and dam costs and debt.

This thesis contributes to the understanding of the return of ‘faith’ in large hydraulic infrastructure, particularly in relation to projects that were previously halted or suspended due to social and environmental contestation. Starting with the construction of the Arun-3 hydropower project in Nepal, which has been revived after more than a decade-long suspension, I show that the resurgence of mega dams in the region is reflective of a new technopolitical regime. This new regime comprises an expanding base of ‘new’ actors, visions, discursive rationalities, and practices, which operate across multiple spatialities. It is shaped by historic events and changing (geo)political-economic conditions and reflects new levels of complexity and interdependencies in the governance of energy systems, which have made it more difficult for affected persons and activists to contest dams in the new century.

The dissertation seeks to advance debates in contemporary development geography concerning new forms of partnerships and practices, and reflects on the significance of sociotechnical imaginaries, discourses, geopolitical and historical conditions, and tensions in explaining the processes and consequences of mega dams as ‘development solutions’. As well as exploring the transnational circuits of planning and finance that are facilitating the making of new hydropower hotspots in the Himalayas, the thesis also assesses how host countries/administrative regions (such as Nepal) deal with the burgeoning interests, strong advocacy, and funding support for hydropower development in their territories.

Unravelling the entanglements of this new energy infrastructure wave, I suggest that mega projects like dams are not a singular apolitical, technical entity that are fixed by spatial, temporal, and historical boundaries. Instead, dams are constantly in a state of becoming, as new hegemonies and development logics are established and re-established. Studying the technopolitics of such interventions can alert us to the voices, actors, techniques, practices, and discourses that are prioritized or marginalized in particular historic moments. It can also offer a nuanced perspective on the emergence or re-emergence of certain development priorities and projects at different points in time.

Mawdsley, Emma
Dam resurgence, Geopolitics, South Asia, Technopolitics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Margaret Anstee Centre Studentship; GARS Travel Grant; University Fieldwork Fund; Phillip Lake II Fund