UCL Anthropology


Episode 1: Modernism and the Drive to Dam Transcript

Podcast Series: Hearing above the roar, Episode 1: Modernism and the Drive to Dam Podcast English Transcript

Host: Lily Higgitt
Guest: Barnaby Dye

Lily: Hello and welcome to ‘Hearing above the roar’ a three-part podcast series unpacking the complexities around the ongoing global boom in megadam construction in East Africa. In this series, we explore what this boom means for people living in its path. I’m Lily, a student in Anthropology, Environment and Development at UCL and your host for this episode. 
Throughout this series, we’ll hear from three different experts, as we explore what is driving these megadams. And we look at the reasons why major energy infrastructure projects continue to happen without adequate planning or compensation to those people who will be most affected by them. 

Today, we will be asking why these massive projects appeal to national governments, especially when the benefits and costs to its citizens are not equally shared. In our next episodes, we’ll consider how project planners might engage more effectively and fairly with the people who depend on water resources for their livelihoods, and talk about ways that local people are mobilising to get their voices heard by governments. 

I’ll be joined in this series by my fellow students Olivia and Hein, who will be your hosts in our upcoming episodes… would you like to say hello and introduce yourselves?

Olivia: Hi everyone, I’m Olivia, and I’m a postgraduate student in ethnography and documentary at UCL, and I hope this podcast opens your eyes to the knock-on effects of hydropower dams such as the consequences upon livelihoods and the environment and the way we can explore and research those impacts. 

Hein: hi everyone, I am Hein Aung Htet, i am a postgraduate student in social anthropology at UCL and wanted to make this student-led podcast due to the importance of hydropower dams and it’s impacts on the environment, local livelihoods and social settings.

Lily: Before we get into the interview for this episode, we want to set the scene for you of why we’re making this podcast about hydropower in the first place. 

Rob Nixon, in his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, published in 2011, writes that: “The 20th century was the century of the megadam: in 1900, no dam on our planet was higher than 15 meters; a hundred years later, there were 36,562 dams that exceeded that height”. 

We now live on a planet where fewer and fewer rivers run free to the sea. A study in 2019 found that, of the longest rivers on Earth (those over 1000km long) only about one third (or 37%) remain free flowing over their entire length, with dams and reservoirs being the main obstacles in their way.

Olivia: At the end of the last century, the scale and pace of dam building was such that, in 1998, a group of international experts was asked to review whether large dams were actually delivering on development goals. The report by the World Commission on Dams published in the year 2000 made for harsh reading. It concluded that, while “dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development… in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits”. But what is that price? What happens when a river is dammed? And isn’t hydropower supposed to be ‘green’?

Hein: Hydropower is renewable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s “green”. Ecologically, dams create large reservoirs of stagnant water and interrupt river flow. THis has a massive impact on aquatic ecosystems and on fisheries, and is actively contributing to catastrophic biodiversity loss among freshwater species globally.

Socially, the benefits of dams are unevenly shared, often favouring industries and urban residents already connected to the electric grid, rather than the rural residents who have their livelihoods disrupted by hydropower installation. 

It’s estimated that between 40 and 80 million people have been displaced when large dams are built. Almost without exception, as Rob Nixon writes, this displacement leads to a declining quality of life in terms of nutrition, health, infant mortality, life expectancy and environmental viability. The people who remain behind will find the ecosystem much changed, with farming and fishing systems adapted to the seasonal cycle of the river undermined, putting at risk their way of life.

Lily: In the wake of the World Commission’s report, major financing institutions like the World Bank seemed to take on board its call for a moratorium on any new dam construction 

However, hydropower is now booming again, 20 years later, and these new projects are bringing up all the same controversies

Olivia: At the same time, access to information, through mobile phones and the internet, are creating new opportunities for even the most isolated and marginalised communities to self-organise and engage in decisions over dams. 

Hein: And that’s what we want to look at in this podcast series. As well as exploring the reasons for hydropower’s resurgence in sub-Saharan Africa, we want to find out if there are ways for people to engage with these development projects, to allow for better environmental and social outcomes for everyone.

Lily: Moving on to our theme for this episode, understanding what’s behind this drive to build megadams in sub-Saharan Africa. We’ll be taking a look at the example of the Julius Nyerere Hydroelectric Power Plant. This is a two-thousand one-hundred and fifteen megawatt dam which began construction in 2019 on the Rufiji River in southern Tanzania 

Once completed, the plant is meant to double the country’s electrical output, with officials claiming that this will deliver cheaper energy to all citizens, power a new electrical train line, and even export energy to neighbouring countries. 

However, construction has been beset by logistical and financial delays, and is currently running over two years behind schedule and many billions of US$ over budget. Even the dam’s supporters in Tanzania recognise that the project is flawed, as it is based on out-dated project feasibility reports and has proceeded without any environmental or social impact assessments—clearly against the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams. 

Lily: In this episode, I talk to Barnaby Dye,  a lecturer in Development Politics at the University of York, and a research fellow from the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester. 

Barnaby’s research is centered upon unpacking decision-making processes, strategies and ideologies mobilized in different development and infrastructure projects; this is based upon his fieldwork in Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, India and Brazil. 

We brought him onto the show today to spotlight some of the controversies and complexities surrounding the Nyerere dam.   For Barnaby, hydropower projects offer insight on how development operates in practice upon and across many levels of society

BD: They often involve such large, transformative pieces of infrastructure and so many different elements of what is involved  in putting together an infrastructure project like that whether it’s the financial side or big geopolitics or just for huge impact on systems and systems which underpin people’s livelihoods and can really transform their ways of being. So that allows you to really ask questions about a whole range of international, national and local politics. The infrastructure is the lynchpin and hydropower is the lynchpin that allows you to bring all these things together. 

Lily: When we first started out planning this series, our plan was to speak with experts, such as yourself, but also to hear from people directly affected by the proposed dam, by speaking to people living in communities along the Rufiji River, and to NGO workers active in the region. But, it didn’t exactly work out as we had hoped…

At first the Nyerere dam seemed like the ideal case study to examine these contentious issues between the promised benefits of hydropower and the anticipated negative consequences. We also had links to people living in Rufiji, through past research from our own anthropology department. 

However, in putting together this podcast series we soon realised that soliciting opinions from Tanzanians—even from professionals or those working for international NGOs--and recording their voices, might put people in uncomfortable, if not dangerous, positions.

BD: Tanzania has taken an authoritarian turn, but it’s always been a country which I would describe as, well, since its introduction of democracy, it’s never been a country of true democracy as we might understand it in a European/American context if you like. And by that I mean that there’s never been the same degree of freedom of press or ability to protes. There isn’t that level of citizen rights that we associate with democracy here. And therefore I think it was widely understood that it’s dangerous to exactly speak out against the government. And I think that’s often been Tanzania’s relationship with democracy, where there’s a strong idea of some democratic principles and respecting voices from below but they have to be within the state and they have to be sort of not challenging. And so then I think that for an independent person, whether that’s, who is Tanzanian or somebody who is a foreigner, coming and asking these questions and trying to collect those views, that’s always going to be viewed with quite a lot of suspicion.
If you are a journalist or academic trying to go to those places, of course that makes it much harder because in order to go there you need to go through all of these gatekeepers which are  controlled by the party and controlled by the state, and so doing research in that context can be very difficult. You need to therefore be doing research which the state is ok with you doing, and of course the state understands, to some degree that this project might be controversial for these people, and that it might have negative impacts on some of those people and therefore it’s going to be unwilling to let people go around freely and talk to them.

Lily: While an outsider to the region like ourselves, Barnaby’s research and fieldwork in Tanzania with in-country researchers, enable him to speak to the history of dam construction as well as some of the issues surrounding hydropower in East Africa today. 

Barnaby has studied the recurring narratives of modernization and development mobilized in both the Nyerere Dam and the Rusumo Falls Hydropower Project on the Tanzanian-Rwandan border. 

Like many dam building projects in Africa, they have a complex history with a number of different parties involved in both their planning and construction. Often, that history has roots in colonialism. And still today, it’s international institutions and foreign governments that ultimately are funding the construction of dams across the region.

BD: The reasons for them wanting to do that have changed over time. First there was a sense of dams playing a major role in national development missions and establishment of these independent countries post-independence from colonialism. I think more recently there has been much more of an interest in climate change and dams and hydropower as a way of securing water, which is quite a narrow way of understanding security I think.

There’s also the national government sort of the other side of that coin, who are interested in dams and I think to trace their interest in sort of from independence onwards a lot of the roots of that do come from the colonial period. In the late colonial period from the 1930, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, depending on when they became independent, there was an interest in setting up these countries’ economies and develop those countries a bit more and this was often done in quite a paternalistic way but there was a degree of a development drive. And dams became quite an important tool in that development drive for all of the reasons that you might expect. They could unlock large plantations to then export crops back to Europe or they could create electricity which could underpin a degree of industrialisation and support an urban population. And so you see in the African context in particular the first sort of large dams start to be built in this time and perhaps the most emblematic example is the Kariba dam on the Zambezi on the Zimbabwe/Zambia, what are now Zimbabwe and Zambia border. And a lot of those same ideas about development then do get taken up by independence leaders and so although maybe some of the studies were started under colonial times a lot of these independence leaders took up this idea of these top-down modernising forms of development and therefore you saw a continued push to build dams post-independence and really the dam-building push even becomes stronger after countries achieve independence. 

Lily: Especially In the context of trying to decolonise development, I think it’s interesting as well how these governments push projects like megadams that are so linked to colonialism but in a post-colonial manner

BD: Yeah and there are important shifts that occur from this colonial time to post-colonial in terms of how the projects are conceived, what their purpose is going to be and the imaginaries of what is possible because of them. I think in the colonial time that is much more proscribed and obviously entirely embedded in ideas of continuing colonialism.
So of course in today’s age it’s then framed in a very different way so now it will be used for ideas of industrialisation, of bringing up those economies, of giving people jobs, but ultimately it’s still a technology which has these major costs. It does have big benefits as well but the major costs are also there and so it is interesting how these modernising ideas of development do shift 

Lily: The Nyerere dam is a clear example of how the colonial roots and dominant ideologies of development can continue to drive the construction of large-scale infrastructure projects in  today’s neocolonial world.

BD: I think this project really encapsulates a lot of what we’ve been talking about. It has a strong element of what you might call path dependency. And that is the logic of once you start sinking money into developing a project, once you start sinking money into planning, studying, and doing the engineering preparation for building a  project then it tends to just spiral on and it’s very hard to let go. And for this project you can chase it… It used to be called the Stiegler’s Gorge dam and that’s because it was first identified as a potential dam site by a German engineer right at the start of the 20th century when it was a German colony of course. It really has this long long history, it’s been known as a dam site for a long time. When it was a British colony there were further studies done, the UN for Japanese Aid Agency, the US AID, the FAO have all commissioned studies on this dam at various times. It was also taken up most significantly by the Norwegian Development Agency in the 1970/1980s.
All of that history lends itself to the project continuing, and even when it gets shelved at various points in its history and gets rejected it still carries on existing, it’s still on a shelf. And so when a government comes in that has a bit more money, that has maybe some more ambition, that’s trying to “do development” in Tanzania it's often picked up as one of the projects that is understood to have a huge potential for the country. 

Lily: When plans for a dam at Steigler’s gorge were last shelved, in 1984, it was in large part due to the research efforts of a group of Tanzanian and foreign researchers based out of the University of Dar es Salaam, who became, in essence, the voice of the river basin residents. 
But as Barnaby will go on to tell us, the plans were resurrected by Kikwete, who was President of Tanzania from 2005 to 2015. 

BD: Particularly towards the end of his first term/the end of his second there was a renewed push to build this dam and that is really because the country had started to develop economically, there was also this wider economic boom going on in Africa because of a commodities cycle where commodities were really rising, there was a bit more money around, there were stronger narratives of Africa as a continent of opportunity. And in that context Kikwete turns to this project as one of many electricity projects that can increase Tanzania’s installed capacity. So that’s a big part of the story about path dependence and this continued belief that this particular dam, the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam or the Julius Nyerere dam will be an important tool for Tanzania, it will be a key for their development. It will enable them to jump from being this lower income country to a middle-income country, it will give them this industrialisation. That’s a very strong part of the narrative. 
And Magafuli when he came into power in 2015 took this on even more and that became an even stronger part and for him it really became the flagship. Under Kikwete it was one of many projects being considered, for Magufuli this becomes one of the big flagships that’s going to deliver his programme and his promises of a stronger, economically developed Tanzania.

Lily: Given the risk to Tanzanian citizens of speaking openly about their views of the dam, I asked Barnaby if he could give his impression on the potential impacts of the dam, based on his familiarity with the region, links to local researchers and his wider experience with similar projects on the African continent.    

BD: From the UNESCO reporting it does seem that the construction process is having a very negative impact on the park. And so of course for those who are involved in tourism there and those who are involved in conservation there is disquiet.

But in other projects it’s always been interesting to me the mixed reactions that different people have had to a project. Slightly different in that the Julius Nyerere dam will have sort of more existential impacts for those downstream than the projects I’ve looked at. Often there’s a desire to buy in to governments’ more hopeful narratives about the project, and that’s very understandable because of course a lot of people do want to have electricity and do want to have perhaps more secure livelihoods. And so if they’re being told that this project will deliver that then there will be lots in the community who will welcome a project like that.
But then it obviously gets more complicated when connections can be made to the benefits they currently have that they might be losing and to the ecosystem services, to use a slightly technical academic phrase, which means services that are being provided by the river and by the area that might be flooded or that might be changed by the way that you’re changing the river, whether that’s about fertility, whether that’s about refreshing ponds downstream by the annual flood, whether that’s by irrigating land with the annual flood, whatever it is. And so often there’s sort of an initial mixed reaction where you’ll have some of the benefits being talked about and desired, and in other cases much more critique and then of course when it comes to displacement again you’ll have a mixed bag. If a compensation scheme is done well, then there will be some who might even have benefitted from that compensation scheme and be better off. But it’s always likely, even if a compensation scheme is done relatively well, it’s very unlikely to be done in a very participatory way and people often therefore fall through the cracks. 

Lily: So what is the problem with megadams continuing to be built? Do they have an undisputed negative social and ecological consequences? And if so, why are they still being commissioned? 

BD: I think it’s interesting there’s an increasing consensus that dams have these very major negative impacts and they really need to be taken consideration of. But that’s never been shared universally. So we can argue from an academic standpoint if you’re overviewing the literature there is a clear consensus of these negative impacts. And that consensus was really reflected in the World Commission on Dams which was published in 2000 and really documented this in a very comprehensive way. But The WCD was also interesting because it showed that there was still a group of people who were financing dams and building dams and of course they have a vested interest but also people who are involved in development more widely who still really believed that this was the infrastructure project or the type of infrastructure or development tool that would deliver.
And I think that you.ve just in the 21st century or in the last decade in particular seen a sort of reinvention of dams around climate. And now there is a big push and it’s probably growing even to build dams because of the need to do a renewable energy transition. And when you have a lot of financing allocated to something and there is a need therefore to get projects off the ground and to get stuff done and to show that you are acting… They demand a lot of money, so they can use up your budget, and they deliver a lot of hydropower and they have some important services that people are valuing in terms of being able to balance out solar and wind which can obviously be intermittent and you can balance them out with hydropower. So I think we are just seeing a reinvention of hydropower, of why dams matter and why they’re important, and from the financiers’ side there’s a real drive to just get these projects done.
And then as I was saying from the other side, from the recipients and the national governments who are also responsible for pushing these projects, I think there’s just still-- not universally but amongst some of the governments that are the biggest proponents--this idea about dams of just being able to simply deliver development. But there is an idea of a very linear development between having that electricity and having industrialisation and having economic growth and not necessarily the thinking through of how you get from that A to B. It’s assumed to be quite a straightforward relationship without really taking apart the different steps that economic development requires.Lily: It’s clear that understanding the impacts of dam projects like the Nyerere dam is anything but simple! 

From economic costs and benefits, to the social consequences and environmental impacts, dams are not the simple solution to achieving economic development that they are often advertised to be. When you add the changing climate to the mix and that rainfall in East Africa is increasingly uncertain, it becomes even more unclear whether dams are able to react and to respond to the energy needs of the local population, especially if water levels fail to meet projected levels..
In light of all this complexity and uncertainty, why do these simplistic narratives (that building dams will inevitably bring about modernisation and prosperity) persist and why do they continue to be so powerful and carry such political currency to this day? 

BD: Yeah, that’s a very good question. Firstly, it’s much easier to find simple solutions. Politics especially when you’re needing to convince the public, when you’re needing to gain legitimacy as a leader there’s always a need to deliver things quickly and there’s always a need to tell a story about how what you’re doing is going to help the people who supported you. And so I think there’s always a sort of political pressure to create relatively simple narratives about some of these big decisions. And I think that’s an element therefore in why some of these projects get framed in quite simple ways as developmental in and of themselves irrespective of the impacts or the benefits.
But it is more complicated than that. It’s more complicated because it’s not just politicians in big public speeches using that kind of rhetoric and using that kind of framing. But you also find it amongst many more technical planners and engineers who are involved in dam building or deciding on financing, whether that’s in the World Bank or the Tanzanian Energy Utility. And I can only explain that by trying to take the ideas that people have seriously and therefore say, well, there’s an ideology of development here, there’s an ideology which says development is essentially a process of taking people who are in one way or another deemed to be backward as in they are uncivilised, they do not have enough rationality, they need to be transformed, and therefore the modern state is one of much more urbanised living, of having all of those  modern services, and also it’s about thinking differently. And there is a long history of infrastructure playing a central role in delivering that. Or of seeing infrastructure as playing a central role in developing that.
And I think dams in particular are so powerful because of the degree of transformation that they entail. This isn’t just about the infrastructure itself, this is about potentially re-inscribing a whole valley, of changing the way in which a river operates, and therefore of changing a whole floodplain. And potentially the livelihoods of the people there. And it allows you this moment of widespread social engineering that I think then appeals to this idea of development as a fundamental transformation from this backward to the modern. It’s not therefore just about the fact that you’re controlling a river, it’s that you are able to deliver—or  just that you’re generating electricity. It’s that you are able to fundamentally transform the way somebody lives and the way communities and economies operate. And therefore I think there’s sort of this attractiveness of dams to that type of thinking, there’s a way in which they’re one of the few technologies which allows you that scale of possibility.

Lily: I’d like to thank Barnaby for taking the time to speak with me. His work sheds light upon the underlying ideologies of development, modernity and progress behind recent iterations of dam fever. 

After speaking to Barnaby, we are reminded that nestled within these narratives and debates about the future are colonial legacies and long histories of political struggles. A major reason why megadams continually fail to actualize sustainable development is how they are often delivered from afar by outsiders with little to no engagement with local communities. Perhaps most saliently, I am left with the uncomfortable questions of what is the appropriate role for outside researchers and how we should best spotlight those directly displaced or impacted by megadam construction without simplifying their perspectives or once again speaking on their behalf.      

In the next episode, we explore how researchers are attempting to navigate some of the dominant narratives and political challenges we discussed with Barnaby in water management projects in Tanzania. We’ll hear about the participatory processes that are designed to include local voices within development projects, and some of the challenges involved in making sure that this happens.

If you’d like to have a transcript of this and future episodes, you’ll find both English and Swahili versions on our website: www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/resources
If you want to drop us an email you’ll find our address on the website. Or you can tweet us at UCLanthropology

Thank you and I hope you have a good day.

Length 31:24