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Discussing large dams in Asia after the World Commission on Dams: Is a political ecology approach the way forward?

Ravi Baghel
Graduate Programme of Transcultural Studies, Cluster of Excellence: Asia & Europe, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany;
Marcus Nüsser
Chair, Department of Geography, Director South Asia Institute, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany;

ABSTRACT: The guidelines proposed in the World Commission on Dams (WCD) final report were vehemently rejected by several Asian governments, and dam building has continued apace in most Asian countries. This reaction is in line with the simplistic dam debate, where dam critics offer laundry lists of socioeconomic and environmental costs, and dam proponents highlight the benefits while underestimating associated costs. Whereas the WCD sought to evaluate dams in terms of 'costs and benefits', this approach is self-defeating due to the very subjectivity of such measurements. This paper argues that the way ahead must be to move beyond a consensus evaluation of dams, and instead examine the shifting asymmetries and discursive flows that sustain and promote dam building over time. However, such an analysis of the dam discourse must incorporate an understanding of the multiple actors and driving forces, as well as the underlying power relations within this politicised environment. We therefore suggest that a post-structural political ecology approach provides a suitable framework for the future examination of large dams in Asia.