Dams as Domination


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

Dams represent one of the strongest manifestations of the urge to dominate nature, regulate it, and turn it towards the uses of humanity. They epitomize the notion that it is appropriate, even necessary, for humans to assert control over nature: that a river can’t be allowed to exist free, following its own rhythm, but that humanity must control it, using technology. The object of a dam, ultimately, is to control, and place within rigid boundaries, the dynamic vitality of a river in its interaction with the landscape as it flows through it. As such, dams represent the triumph of technology over nature:

“Massive dams are much more than simply machines to generate electricity and store water. They are concrete, rock and earth expressions of the dominant ideology of the technological age: icons of economic development and scientific progress to match nuclear bombs and motor cars.”

And as historian Theodore Steinberg noted with reference to the Hoover Dam, the most famous American dam: it “was supposed to signify greatness, power and domination. It was planned that way.”

Related to this perspective is the notion that dams are important simply as a means of avoiding the “waste” of nature. A similar idea has often been expressed, in widely varying political contexts, that water allowed to flow to the sea without being used for some human purpose, is “wasted”:

“Water which is allowed to enter the sea is wasted.”
Joseph Stalin, 1929

“Quebec is a vast hydroelectric plant in the bud and everyday, millions of potential kilowatt-hours flow downstream and out to sea. What a waste!”
Robert Bourassa, Power from the North (1985)

“It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which India can afford to let the waters of a major river such as the Narmada run wasted to the sea.”
World Bank, 1987

It has often been suggested that the domination of nature is tied to the domination of people. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” The interaction between water development and political power has been debated for decades. Most obviously, the assertion of human domination over a river by a dam — “taming” a “wild” river — provides a dramatic illustration of the might of the state that built that dam. Karl Wittfogel wrote the classic and much debated work on this interaction, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (1957). A basic thesis was that great water works necessitate centralized direction, large state enterprises, and disciplined armies. Absolutist regimes of hydraulic societies are usually governed by one person with concentrated power over important decisions.

Max Horkheimer, the philosopher of the Frankfurt School, wrote on the link between the exploitation of nature and human beings; a link subtly reinforced by dams. As Theodore Steinberg summarizes: “Modern capitalist societies, Horkheimer felt, had lost their bearings, their sense of reason. They were intent instead on domination for the sake of domination, on dominating nature, man, and whatever else they could think of. Out went moral reasoning, and in came a crusading urge to manipulate and exploit. Whatever sacred value was once attached to the natural world was stamped out by the instrumentalism and calculation of expert engineers and others engaged in an irrational quest to conquer and subdue. But little of this crosses the mind of the average visitor on a trip to Hoover Dam, or any other dam for that matter. What visitors tend to see is the glory of it all, of nature outwitted by good old American ingenuity.” (Steinberg, “‘That World’s Fair Feeling’: Control of Water in 20th-Century America,” 1993, 404-405).

This notion of a link between water development and control over humans is also advanced by Donald Worster in his Rivers of Empire. Just as many free-flowing rivers have been imprisoned within the concrete walls of irrigation canals, so too have centralized agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers, by reshaping the rivers of the American west, moved the region far from the ideal of a frontier land in which individuals and communities could determine their own destiny.

Simon Schama provides a useful overview of some of these ideas concerning water development and politics: While the rivers of the ancient world brought both the principle of circulation to settled societies [bringing movement to stationary settlements], they were also seen as the carriers of havoc & death. For example, for the Nile, too little water would bring starvation, sandstorms, anarchy; high water would bring floods, saturation of seed stocks, parasites, blights, invasion of sacred sites like the great temple at Karnak. One of the nilometers calibrated not just the measure of the water but its correlates in human fortune and misfortune: 12 cubits denoted famine; 13, hunger; 14, cheerfulness; 15, security; 16, delight. A failure of the Nile to perform according to expectations almost certainly had serious political consequences, and seems to have coincided with ruptures in the orderly succession of the Pharoahs. What the river could authorize, it could also take away.

Schama continues: A long tradition of sociologists, from Karl Marx to Karl Wittfogel, have seen “hydraulic societies” and despotism as functionally connected. In naturally arid regions, they argued, only an absolutely obedient, virtually enslaved regime could possibly have mobilized the concentrations of labor needed to man & maintain the irrigation canals and dikes on which intensive agriculture depended. And Wittfogel, who went from being a devout Marxist to an equally impassioned anti-Marxist, made no secret in the 1950s that he saw in the Chinese and Soviet regimes further evidence that it was as the arbiters of water that tyrannies anointed themselves as legitimate. The colossal dam and the hydroelectric power station as emblems of omnipotence were for modern despots what the Nile irrigation canals were for the Pharaohs. Steaming along the Volga-Don canal to which countless thousands of slave laborers had been sacrificed, Stalin could proclaim himself the master of the waters. Breasting his way down the Yangtze, at the head of regiments of the swimming proletariat, Mao Tse-tung could affirm that he was indeed the fluvial Emperor of the Masses: unsinkable, indestructible, immortal. And through the Three Gorges Dam, flooding the most famous icon of all China’s river landscapes, Deng Xiaoping tried to present himself in succession to the founder of the very first dynasty, around 2200 B.C., the semi-legendary emperor Yu (the Chinese Osiris), whose authority was established on his mastery of the flood, & the establishment of intensive, irrigated agriculture.

Several examples exist of this relation between political power and water development. Beginning in the 1930s, Stalin sought to reshape the Soviet landscape through dams and canals, to demonstrate the power of the state through its domination of nature. According to one Soviet official, “[t]he more such projects contradicted the laws of nature, the more highly they were regarded the more brilliantly the illusion of their success demonstrated the power and wisdom of the new leaders of the country.” Until 1960, the main Soviet dam-building agency, the Hydroproject Institute, was a subdivision of the KGB. Secret police and dams were linked by the fact that only the gulags could provide the huge labour force needed to build the Soviet dams. In effect, these represented an effort to build human progress thru the total control of nature — to make “mad rivers sane”.


Pearce, The Dammed, 1992 (pp.100-114). [Describes the Soviet use of water development as a demonstration of state power.]

Three other political implications of water development include:

  • the relationship between the centres of power within nations, and the periphery or hinterland (as defined in geographic, economic or political terms). This aspect has been apparent, for example, in hydro developments in both Malaysia and Canada.
  • the place of indigenous peoples in national economic and political systems, and the disproportionate impact of dam projects on these peoples.
  • the assertion by particular agencies of their authority and access to financial and political resources. As dam building agencies grow in size and power they increasingly lose sight of their original aims and come to confuse means with ends, as their primary goal becomes protecting their budgets and activities. Social theorists like Max Weber and Ivan Illich have argued that this process is typical with bureaucracies.


  • Price, David H., “Wittfogel’s Neglected Hydraulic/Hydroagricultural Distinction,” J. Anthropological Research, 1994, 50: 187-204.
  • Reisner, Marc, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1986, 1993). [A classic account of the efforts by two water development agencies: the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to maintain their activities long after they had ceased to serve a useful social purpose.]
  • Steinberg, Theodore, “‘That World’s Fair Feeling’: Control of Water in Twentieth Century America,” Technology and Culture, 1993, 34(2):.
  • Wittfogel, Karl A., Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957).
  • Worster, Donald, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985). [on the history of water development in the United States. He also discusses (pp. 22-48) the implications of Wittfogel's thesis for the history of American water resources.]