GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Lesson 8 Reading


Required Reading for the week includes:

Bakker, K. (1999). The politics of hydropower: developing the Mekong. Political Geography, 18, 209–232.

Bakker analyzes the two dominant discourses around hydropower development of the Mekong River Basin. The two discourse are “water as a scarce resource; and capitalism as a neutral force for growth, development and integration in the post-Cold War era” (p. 210). Through an analysis of the discourses, Bakker aims to highlight the real material effects (impact of fisheries, inequitable distribution of benefits between countries, etc.) that these discourses obscure. Bakker argues that the scarcity of water discourse rests on the idea that water is scarce and inefficiently utilized, and that this global discourse plays out even in areas where water is available in abundance. This framing of water tends to devalue the local uses and economies dependent on water, presents them as the problem to which efficient water management through hydropower development are the “solution”. The second discourse of neutral capital comes from the idea of private capital promoting efficiency in water management. However, this tends to hide the “lack of accountability, absence of rigorous environmental and social impact studies, and conflict of interest apparent in the close links between ‘tied aid’ [from development banks etc.] and private investment” (p. 225).  

"Hydrodevelopment at any scale will operate primarily, and most importantly, as a means of commodification, and simultaneously as a means of extending state control into predominantly rural areas (Dodds, 1994; Escobar, 1996). This progressive capitalisation, mediated by the state, will increase the likelihood that revenue flows of hydrodevelopment will, once captured, be redirected away from local people and local use."

"Without state-sanctioned property rights, for example, highland peoples, in many cases ethnic minorities, living in the areas affected by dam-building are without recourse if hydropower developers refuse their claims for compensation (Ryder, 1996)."

"This supposedly apolitical rescripting of boundaries is, however, a profoundly political move, not least because of the inequitable distribution of costs and benefits of resource exploitation between upstream and downstream riparian nations, and between urban and rural communities."

In reading this piece, consider how discourses around development also privilege large infrastructure projects like dams. How do these discourses affect our ability to think of alternatives to large dams?

Green, W. N., & Baird, I. G. (2016). Capitalizing on Compensation: Hydropower Resettlement and the Commodification and Decommodification of Nature–Society Relations in Southern Laos. Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 106(4), 853–873.

In this article, the authors examine the processes by which hydropower resettlement packages transform nature-society relations of the project affected persons. Studying the experiences of the Heuny in Southern Laos, the article examines the processes of commodification employed by the hydropower developers as well as their consultants in deciding the compensation for the project-affected persons. In particular, it highlights how only certain aspects of the Heuny livelihood and culture are deemed eligible for compensation (“variegated commodification”), while others are “de-commodified”, and how this is driven by the consultant’s cultural and political perceptions of certain assets and their value. The article criticizes the compensation process, which purportedly seeks to return livelihoods to pre-resettlement levels, but whose practices of commodification help normalize ideas of development and monetary valuation, as well as help deepen capitalist social relations (e.g. increased sale of land whereas land had no monetary value before) and proletarianization (e.g. the Heuny working as wage laborers in nearby coffee plantations). 

Ziv, G., Baran, E., Nam, S., Rodríguez-Iturbe, I., & Levin, S. A. (2012). Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin. PNAS, 109(15), 5609–5614.

In the article, the authors develop a framework to examine the cumulative impact of 27 tributary dams on fish biodiversity in the Mekong River Basin. The authors argue that much of the international attention has been on the main stem dams, and little attention has been paid to the dams on the tributary, which are under the jurisdictions of their respective national governments and where no cumulative impact assessment has been undertaken. In the model, the authors look at different scenarios of dam construction for different levels of hydropower production. Thus, they are able to provide the scenario with least environmental impact of fisheries for each energy-production level. Overall, their analysis finds that the construction of all the planned tributary dams would have greater impact of fish biodiversity than the combined impact of the six upper main stem dams. 

The authors are concerned with making decisions to build dams or avoid them. When reading these articles, consider what attributes should be considered when making such decisions. The authors suggest that “this decision [to build or not] could be made by assigning monetary value to hydropower and fish biomass”. What do you think about their recommendation? 

NOTE: Links to the readings are located in the Lesson 8 module in Canvas.