Dams and Democracy

Last week the film festival Let’s talk about water in Delft began with a journey on the Nile. We watched the comedy “Abay vs. Vegas” (2011) by Ethiopian film director Theodros Teshome that anticipated the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and then the original version of “Once upon a time…The Nile” (1968) the documentary by Youssef Chahine on the building of the Aswan Dam, at that time censored by Egyptian authorities. Then the journey led us in China with “Sud Eau Nord Déplacer” (2014) in which the French visual artist Antoine Boutet films the construction of the gigantic infrastructures to transfer water from the Yangtze river in the South of the country to the arid North where cities and industries are struggling with water shortage and pollution.

These three megaprojects powerfully illustrate the theme of the festival, Water and Power. By building infrastructures, governments attempt to build states or nations as well. Hydronationalism was the one the most intriguing terms used to describe such processes at the interdisciplinary workshop on Water, technology and the nation-state convened by Filippo Menga at the University of Manchester.

The three projects also share the fact of having been promoted by non democratic governments. A forthcoming issue of the journal Water Alternatives discusses the (re)turn to infrastructure for water management. High modernism strikes back. Is the return to  “a 20th century water management paradigm centered on big infrastructure” mainly taking place in non democratic countries? Perhaps there is not a direct correlation between the size of a dam and the level of democracy of the country where it is built. Indeed in the past large public investments in infrastructures have been at the centre of progressive programmes like President Roosvelt’s New Deal in the US. On the other side, another movie screend during Let’s talk about water festival, “Chinatown” (1974), reminded us that corruption and lack of accountability in large infrastructure projects can easily happen in democracies too.

So, rather than talking in general about democratic and non democratic countries, I would argue that nowadays megaprojects seem to take place mainly in the context of closed political spaces. Such spaces might be carved both within democracies or auhtoritarian regimes. They are caractherised by the securitization of projects and infrastructures that become issues of national interests and unescapable drivers of progress. Access to the construction sites is controlled and difficult, particularly for journalists or researchers. Concerns about social and environmental impact, or workers’rights are silenced.

In a chapter of the book Aid and authoritarianism in Africa, with Luca Puddu we analyse how high modernist projects on hydropower or irrigation in Ethiopia, throughout different regimes, have been implemented within a state of exception. For instance in the case of the Gilgel Gibe II hydropower project, the urgent need to fulfill the growing power demand of the country legitimised the bypassing of national and international norms on competetive bids to assign the contract, as well as of the regular procedures on social and environmental impact assessment. This fast track and state of exception approach was initially tested in Gilgel Gibe II with the complicity of the Italian government that funded the project. Later it has been replicated on a much bigger scale with Gilgel Gibe III and the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, with Chinese capitals too. Thus, the relation between dams and democracy might reveal interesting information not only about the democratic crdentials of the countries in which the dams are built, but more in general about the health of the accountability mechanisms put in place by the international systems and the donors that support these projects.


Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Chair group of IHE Delft. He works on water, politics and development in Ethiopia; media, science and water conflicts in the Nile basin; visual research methods. Emanuele hosts the podcasts "The sources of the Nile" https://nilewaterlab.org/podcast-the-sources-of-the-nile/ and Water Alternatives Podcast http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/wat

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