Bent Flyvbjerg

By Bent Flyvbjerg

Large dam development: from Trojan horse to Pandora’s box

New paper by Rhodante Ahlers, Margreet Zwarteveen, and Karen Bakker, in The Oxford Handbook of Megaproject Management, 2017, Chapter 25, pp. 556-576.

Abstract: We argue that the context of dam development today is radically different from that of the 20th century, illustrated by two examples: the case of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile and the Nam Theun 2 on the Mekong. 20th century dams, we claim, may be likened to Trojan Horses: while legitimized as mechanisms of economic development, they were also important embodiments of political and ideological spatial strategies—notably the spatial extension of nation-state power. In contrast, large dams of the 21st century are more like Pandora’s Boxes: due to a proliferation of private and quasi-private actors involved in dam development and the blurring of the boundaries between public and private rights and responsibilities, they constitute institutionally opaque and fragmented settings—in which power is distributed and thus the role of the nation-state attenuated. This tremendously complicates the assessment of the responsibilities for and costs, benefits and risks of dam building. It makes transparently and democratically organizing dam governance more difficult than it ever was. We propose the concept of “dam democracy” as an organizing principle for addressing these issues, and for enabling equitable and sustainable decision making regarding large dams in the 21st century.

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