Dams as Development


Original Text by: Prof. Stephen Bocking, Assistant Professor, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Dams and National Pride

As is evident in the Bakun Dam, water development projects play important roles in asserting national pride and confidence in economic and technical capabilities, and demonstration of the power of the national government. These roles have been pervasive in dam development in both the North and South. For example, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the late 1950s and early 1960s, involving as it did the damming and “harnessing” of the Nile, upon which Egypt had depended for thousands of years, was viewed as an affirmation of the capabilities of a modern, self-confident Egypt. Similarily, the construction of the Akosombo Dam in Ghana in the late 1950s was viewed by the first president of that nation as a symbol of Ghana’s intention of becoming a fully industrialized nation, and to play a leading role amongst the newly emerging independent nations of Africa. (In fact, the dam pushed Ghana deep into debt, in return for minimal benefits.) Similar roles of dams can be identified in the former Soviet Union, in China, and in the United States. For example, the development of water power in the western U.S. has served an important symbolic role as a demonstration of American competence and efficiency. As Wallace Stegner wrote in 1946 concerning the Hoover Dam:

“It is certainly one of the world’s wonders, that sweeping cliff of concrete, those impetuous elevators, the labyrinth of tunnels, the huge power stations. Everything about the dam is marked by the immense smooth efficient beauty that seems peculiarly American.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt was even more succinct on the subject of the Hoover Dam: “I came, I saw, and I was conquered.”

Related to their use as a symbol of national achievement, dams have also served as an instrument of competition in Cold War rivalries. For example, in 1955, to their great satisfaction, Russians finished the Kuibyshev Power Plant on the Volga River, that had a production of 2,300 MW, outdistancing the largest American power plant, the Grand Coulee Dam, which then had a capacity of 1,974 MW. By the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union had several power plants larger than Grand Coulee, this fact helped speed approval of a massive expansion of Grand Coulee’s capacity, to again make it the world’s largest.

Dams have played a similar ideological role in Canada. In British Columbia from the 1950s to the 1970s, dams were often invoked as symbols of the capability of that province to take charge of its own economic future, independent of the economic power centres in central Canada. Similarly, in Quebec, particularly after the nationalization of Hydro Quebec in the 1960s, hydroelectric projects, led by the James Bay project, were viewed as symbols of technical and economic prowess, and as indications of the capabilities of Quebec as a province or an independent nation.

Perhaps the significance of dams to national pride is linked in some way to the historic relation that has sometimes been drawn between rivers and national character. Macaulay noted, for example, “the singular love and veneration which rivers excite in those who live on their banks.” The reason, he suggested, was that rivers have, in greater degree than almost any other inanimate object, the appearance of animation, something resembling character. They are sometimes slow and dark-looking, sometimes fierce and impetuous, sometimes bright and dancing and almost flippant. The attachment of the French for the Rhone may be explained into a very natural sympathy. It is a vehement and rapid stream. It seems cheerful and full of animal spirits, even to petulance.” And similarly, links were drawn between the characteristics of the Thames, and the supposed character of the English people.


  • McCully, Silenced Rivers, pp. 238-240.
  • Pearce, The Dammed, pp. 115-128. [on the political significance of the High Aswan and Akosombo Dams.]

Dams and International Aid
From its beginning the Bakun Dam has been closely intertwined with international aid, from initial surveys of Sarawak’s hydroelectric potential, supported by the Colombo Plan, to feasibility studies conducted in the 1980s, and financed in part by West Germany’s aid agency. More generally, dams have been a significant target of international aid since the 1940s, as northern governments and multilateral agencies such as the World Bank have sought to promote their construction in the South. They have also exemplified the changing political and economic roles of aid. During the Cold War, international aid agencies were eager to support construction of dams in the developing world. When financed by western nations, they served to symbolize the power of capitalism. When financed by the Soviet Union, they symbolized the power of communism. In either case, they symbolized the dependency of aid recipients on the superpowers.

In the post-Cold War era, while dams remain significant as the objects of aid, the primary purpose of this aid has shifted from contributing to this ideological competition, to the more specific purpose of supporting firms in donor countries, such as engineering and consulting companies, able to benefit from contracts for dam construction. In many cases, provision of aid for dam projects has been tied to use of expertise and products from the donor country. Donor governments have also apparently been willing, when necessary, to link aid for dam projects to the encouragement of trade in other goods provided by the donor. One recent example concerns the Pergau Dam in Malaysia (see above). In recent years, therefore, the interaction between the development and aid objectives of northern nations, and the export aspirations of the northern private sector, have tightened.

There are also direct connections between the interest of bilateral aid agencies in supporting dam projects in other countries, and the diminishing opportunities to build dams in their own countries. As domestic markets for dam technology and expertise have declined, the need to develop new markets has become an imperative. This dynamic is especially well portrayed in several chapters in Usher, ed., Dams as Aid, that focus on projects in Laos, Tanzania, and Chile.

The World Bank presents a special, and extremely important case of the interaction between dam projects and a financing agency. (As reflected in being mentioned at various places in this document.) Its dominant role in funding dam projects reflects, in part, conditions particular to it, including its imperative of maximizing the efficient flow of capital through that institution. Dams, as projects that usually have very large appetites for capital, serve this imperative effectively. World Bank involvement in dam projects also raises interesting questions concerning the evaluation of such projects. Most recently, the World Bank’s Operations Evaluation Department prepared a draft report that asked, “Should the World Bank continue supporting the development of large dams?”, and answered with a “conditional yes, the conditions being that: (i) the projects comply strictly with the new Bank guidelines; and (ii) the design, construction and operation of new projects take into account the lessons of experience.” In a subsequent critique of this report, Patrick McCully of the International Rivers Network argued that “The OED review does not assess the actual performance of the projects it covers, is based on flawed methodology and inadequate data, and displays a systematic bioas in favour of large dam building. Its conclusions must be rejected as untenable.”


  • Adams, Patricia, Lawrence Solomon, In the Name of Progress: The Underside of Foreign Aid, 2nd ed., (Toronto: Energy Probe Research Foundation, 1991).
  • Caulfied, Catherine, Masters of Illusion: The World Bank and the Poverty of Nations, (Henry Holt, 1997).
  • Lachica, Eduardo, “U.S. turns back on big dams,” The Globe & Mail, March 14, 1996. [On American reluctance to support future foreign dam projects.]
  • McCully, Silenced Rivers, pp. 255-262.
  • “Nordic countries assist Pangani Falls redevelopment,” Water Power & Dam Construction, 1993, January: 17-22.
  • Rich, Bruce, Mortgaging the Earth: The World Bank, Environmental Impoverishment, and the Crisis of Development, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994). [Excellent critique of the World Bank. Some discussion of its involvement in financing dam projects.]
  • Usher, Ann Danaiya, Dams as Aid, (Routledge, 1997). [not yet released " a critical analysis of the funding and building of dams in the developing world. Drawing on the experiences in the Nordic region, Usher explores the mechanisms through which international aid subsidizes dams to create new markets, and the environmental and political economy struggles therein. Case studies of dams in Chile, Tanzania, and Laos are explored in depth to provide a broad international comparative framework." (from the publisher's catalogue)]

Dams and Expertise
The development of dams provides several illustrations of the significance of scientific expertise in development. It is a truism, of course, that such developments depend on expertise of various kinds, particularly engineering. This role of expertise can be placed within the broad understanding of science as an supposedly “objective” instrument for the imposition of development. The use of scientific and technical expertise has often had the consequence of redefining issues of politics, priorities, and conflicts between interests — that is, matters that should be decided through democratic debate — as technical issues, soluble through the application of this expertise.

Of course, “objective” science actually implys a range of subjective assumptions, that have pervasive economic and political, as well as environmental, consequences. Such analyses have been carried furthest in interpretations of well-known development initiatives such as the green revolution; they may also be extended to dam projects. One recent statement by an engineer can illustrate how a particular view of nature can be incorporated within the professional outlook of one form of expertise:

“The avoidance of change and the doctrinaire preservation of nature exactly as it happens to be at the time in question, are quite contrary to the professional training and purposes of engineers, who continually seek to improve on what has already been achieved. The achievement of aesthetic beauty, functional as a structure may also be, the enhancement of scenic beauty, and the improvement of the quality of water available for man have been, and are, fundamental objectives.”

Or, as Camille Dagenais, former head of the Canadian engineering firm SNC expressed this in 1985: “In my view, nature is awful and what we do is cure it.”

A more nuanced view of the role of science in dam projects is also possible. According to this view, different forms of scientific expertise have either supported dam development (e.g. engineering, hydrologic expertise), or have warned of its impacts (e.g. ecological expertise), or have suggested alternatives to dams (e.g. traditional knowledge of resources within reservoir areas). To some extent, the “dam debate,” discussed above, may represent the divergent perspectives, and tensions between, different scientific and technical disciplines involved in development projects.

An examination of the role of scientific expertise in dam development can also raise more specific questions about the appropriate use of such expertise. In many instances, policymakers making decisions concerning dam projects rely for their information on consultants who have often visited the site only briefly, and consequently exhibit a variety of biases in their results, including seasonal biases (fieldwork being difficult in the wet season), “tarmac” biases, (few venture far from the main roads), and biases on a few over-studied accessible projects.

One consequence of the reliance on consulting “experts” from elsewhere for information regarding rivers and their development is that, as Patrick McCully notes, knowledge gained in one type of river ecosystem has often been applied inappropriately to other ecosystem types. This is a problem particularly pervasive in dam projects in tropical or semi-arid regions, because most of the expertise applied to such projects is gained through study of temperate rivers. Environmental scientists who may have learned their craft on the Mississippi or Fraser Rivers may apply inappropriately their knowledge to other rivers. For example, in South America, the Yacyreta Dam on the Parana River was fitted with fish elevators based on knowledge of consultants experienced with the Columbia River. These elevators, however, were inappropriate for the fish species found there. Similarly, hydrological knowledge is generally grounded in experience in temperate regions. Assumptions implied by this, concerning, for example, rainfall variation over the course of year, may not hold in semi-arid regions.

The application of technical expertise in dam projects and other water developments has also often had the consequence of displacing indigenous knowledge about a region and its resources — knowledge often more attuned to local realities and priorities, than imported expertise.

On the other hand, it has also been argued that technical expertise of any kind — engineering, ecological, social — has not been used effectively in decisions concerning dams, with these decisions being made on political grounds, without considering expert advice concerning impacts or viability. Examples of this argument include Fearnside and Barbosa (1996, 1996), and Rycroft and Szyliowicz (1980) (See chapter six).

One aspect of the Bakun Dam environmental impact assessments that has attracted much criticism was that the expertise drawn on for these had close ties to Ekran Berhad. This is a situation commonly encountered, in which environmental impact assessments of dam projects are most often conducted by consulting firms with ties to, or shared interests with, dam construction firms. Numerous examples exist in which EIA studies have been inaccurate, or more optimistic than warranted, of which perhaps the most notorious has been the Canadian feasibility study of the Three Gorges Dam. As McCully notes, dam builders often build and hope for optimum hydrological conditions, overestimating annual flows, underestimating peak flows, ignoring evidence that much less water is likely to be available than expected, and discounting possible changes in conditions, such as those that may result from climate change. McCully concludes:


“Dams are beset with technical problems, some of them inherent to the technology, some of them due to the lack of independent oversight of the dam-building process. These problems can cause long construction delays and plague project performance, economics and safety. The failure of dams to perform as promised is generally because the promises were based on highly overoptimistic assumptions made during project planning. Engineers’ and politicians’ claims of project viability are often made despite a lack of basic data on the geology of the dam site or the amount of water or sediment carried by the river. At other times data are collected but unfavourable findings are either ignored or are interpreted in as optimistic a light as possible.”


  • Adams, Wasting the Rain, pp. 35-38, 100-103, 209-212. [on the role of expertise in African water development projects.]
  • Pircher, W., “36 000 dams and still more needed,” Water Power and Dam Construction, May 1993: 15-18. [An example of an engineering perspective on the benefits and costs of dams.]
  • Pearce, Fred , The Dammed, “To Subdue the Earth” pp.131-143 [a
  • profile of the international fraternity of dam engineers, represented by ICOLD - the International Commission on Large Dams.]
  • See also: Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: A History of the Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, (Berkeley: University of California, 1995); Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest, (Verso); Susan E. Place, ed., Tropical Rainforests, (Scholarly Resources). [These books illustrate, among other themes, competing models for the "development" of the tropical rainforests. Science has played a large role in many of these efforts. For example, throughout the tropics, there has often been tension between scientists interested in conservation of natural areas, and agricultural scientists who have agendas of their own.]

Dams and Alternative Perspectives
While the large dams of the twentieth century are a product of modern scientific and engineering expertise, there are also alternative traditions of expertise in the use of water, often dating back many centuries, but that have also often been suppressed, replaced, and forgotten. In a few places, however, these alternative perspectives are being revived, along with the forms of political and social organization that they imply, including the assumption by communities of a larger role in decisions concerning their access to water. Some examples of these alternative perspectives can be found in the irrigation works of the ancient agricultural civilizations of the American west; in the rain-capturing technologies of ancient Israel; in the qanats: underground water supply tunnels in ancient Iran; and in irrigation systems in ancient Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America; and in tankas (reservoirs) of the Thar Desert in western India.


  • Agarwal, Anil, Sunita Narain, “Dying Wisdom: The Decline and Revival of Traditional Water Harvesting Systems in India,” The Ecologist, 1997, vol. 27(3): 112-116.
  • Pearce, Fred, The Dammed, pp. 50-64, 159-166.

Dams and Forms of Development

Projects like the Bakun Dam present a stark conflict between two conceptions of development: that implied by a technology imported from the industrialized world, intended to supply distant centres through a national energy system; and that implied by the communities it threatens to displace, whose economies remain based on local resources, regional trading relationships, and indigenous cultures. Such conflicts and debates concerning development are often not immediately apparent to many Canadians, who tend to see only export opportunities in the rapidly growing economies of the Asian Pacific rim.

This contrast exemplifies the contrast between the view of development as a process that draws its impetus from international flows of investment, and the demands of integration within the global economy, and that therefore must be imposed upon (done “to”) people; and the view of development as a process that draws from local sources of capital and raw materials, that serves primarily local or regional markets, and that is done “by” people. Dams — a technology brought in from outside a region, and imposed on people living within a river basin, provide especially powerful illustrations of the first notion of development.

A specific aspect of this implication of dams is the close relation between dams and dependent industries. Of these, the aluminum industry is probably the leading example, because of its large demand for electric power. Serving an international market, and commonly placed wherever inexpensive supplies of electricity are available, the aluminum industry enjoys a mutually supportive relationship with the international dam construction industry, drawing on the product of dams, while at the same time justifying the existence of many of them. A leading example is the Akosombo Dam in Ghana, originally constructed to provide the basis for Ghana’s industrialization, but that serves primarily as a electricity source for the Volta Aluminum Company. Other significant examples are Alcan’s Kemano project in British Columbia, and Alcan’s extensive hydroelectric projects in Quebec. Internationally, the aluminum industry is a major consumer of power from several of the largest dams in the world.