Special Issue Observes Telling Nexus Between Geological and Social Engineering

Large-scale hydroelectric dams are at the centre of deep social, political and environmental conflicts. On the one hand, they stand for low-carbon energy production and economic development. On the other hand, they represent massive interventions into ecosystems and very often affect the rights of the most marginalized populations who hardly have a say in the processes of planning and construction.

Research at the Centre identified dams as multi-dimensional societal challenges in a workshop in 2017. Subsequent interdisciplinary research by an international group of scholars resulted in a special issue of the journal Sustainable Development, the fruitful result of a collaboration between researchers from the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, the Institute for Development and Peace (both University of Duisburg-Essen) and the Division of History, Heritage and Politics at the University of Stirling. The issue is now fully open access. It shows vividly the profound social hopes and conflicts associated with large dams.

Contributions in the special issue also provide historical insights: Dams are not a new phenomenon. Their history over the last century shows that they were often built in moments of crisis and renewal, especially when governments and international institutions wanted to demonstrate that they were ‘taking charge of the future’ and driving progress. It is interesting to note that all types of regimes and political parties have promoted large dam projects: communist and capitalist, statist and neoliberal, authoritarian and democratic. What they have in common is a belief in human creativity and agency, in what Hannah Arendt called the capacities of homo faber. Typically, the belief in technical creativity goes hand in hand with the conviction that we as humans can shape not only the natural environment but also social and political relations: Dam building as geological and social engineering.

This approach is in line with the Centre’s current research in the role of imagination in society, as a societal driving force in global public discourse and the stuff from which powerful narratives may be derived, be it in favour or critique of–dams, for example.

The project has been propelled from the start by  Dr Andrea Schapper, alumni fellow of the Centre and a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Stirling, Dr Christine Unrau, Research Group Leader at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and Dr Christian Scheper, Senior Researcher at The Institute for Development and Peace (INEF), University of Duisburg-Essen.

NOW OPEN ACCESS: Sustainable Development Special Issue: The Material Politics of Damming Water: Contestation and Conflict in Hydroelectric Energy Projects, Vol 28, Issue 2 (first published: 13 April 2020)