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Water, Culture, Power: An Online Feature from Anthropology News

Today we present an online essay by Barbara Rose Johnston that supplements her January Anthropology News print commentary, “Water, Culture and Power Negotiations at the UN.” The print essay is now available on the AAA website and AnthroSource. We welcome readers to respond to both the print essay and online supplement through comments.

Water, Culture, Power: Emerging Trends

By Barbara Rose Johnston (Center for Political Ecology)

UN-sponsored discussions help create the architecture to foster knowledge development, exchange, and facilitate the emergence of new agreements and implementation mechanisms. At the same time, it is readily apparent that there are much more powerful factors driving change in today’s water/culture/power world.

The global economic collapse has meant, at least in a few cases and most likely on a temporary basis, loss of the means to finance large water infrastructure projects. Thus, Guatemala’s request for construction bids for a second dam on the Chixoy (Xalala Dam) closed in 2005 with no offers. In 2009, none of the nine companies that expressed interest in this project presented an offer, reportedly because the government’s failure to manage local community opposition and changes in financial liquidity as a result of the global economic situation.

Increased advocacy and documentation of corruption and violations of loan agreements has also resulted, in a few cases, in the cancellation of planned projects. For example, in 2003 the Asian Development Bank cancelled 80% of its projects in Nigeria over concern for corruption. Beginning in 2000 and extending through 2008, withdrawal of international development aid slowed the pace of infrastructure development, especially bilateral aid between the US and nations in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, and water infrastructure development financing from the World Bank and other development banks.

At the same time, new bilateral partnerships have been created. China, with its post-Three Gorges expertise, has emerged as a major player in water infrastructure in Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia where extractive resource rights are often granted in exchange for the construction of dams, diversions and supporting infrastructure (highways, power grids). China is financing or their companies are building 224 projects in some 49 countries (April 2009 data compiled by International Rivers).

At this writing, stimulus financing of international and regional development banks is beginning to breathe new life into stalled “pipeline” projects. In June 2009 the World Bank announced their intent to scale up their role in financing hydrodevelopment. To sell this return to a large-infrastructure development portfolio, a new “best practice” commission driven by industry and financiers has drafted a sustainability assessment tool that offers alternatives to World Commission on Dam’s findings and recommendations, and allows dams and diversions to be repackaged as sustainable green energy and food security investments (see the International Hydropower Association’s draft protocol.

In December 2009, the IHA’s draft assessment tool was reviewed by the International Network on Displacement and Resettlement, who found significant shortcomings and technical errors, including the failure to consider the impoverishment risks imposed on populations affected by dam construction; the low priority or complete omission of dam displacement-resettlement concerns from key stages of the project cycle; a flawed and imbalanced scoring methodology; and, the failure to incorporate existing policies and mitigation measures that reflect international and national law.

The historical location of dam projects in remote regions and the documented demographics of development-refugees, has led many to conclude that large-infrastructure water development and the associated displacement of culturally diverse communities are major factors in the rise of global poverty and decline in biocultural diversity. It was this destructive reality that prompted the formation of a World Commission on Dams. Closer examination of the renewed push for large-dams as green “sustainable” development finds obscured agendas as the driving force behind many plans: hydropower generation to allow energy and extractive resource development, the export of electricity and water to sustain the high-energy and high-water consumer lifestyle of some first-world nations, and water futures development (capturing water to sell in a future world water market). In Canada, for example, hydrodevelopment is closely linked with mining and energy development, where some 63% of all surface water is used for energy production. Some of the proposals floating around include water diversions and containment to support nuclear power plant operations, which in turn produce the electricity and the steam to support oil extraction from the Alberta Tar Sands deposits. In Guatemala, existing and planned hydrodevelopment is promoted as poverty alleviation—providing electricity to rural households—yet, in fact, supports the urban and regional grids (with power flowing north through Mexico to the US), with local transmission often used to support the mining and processing of nickel, gold and other minerals. In Turkey an on-again/off-again water pipeline project that has been partially completed proposes the shipment of water from Turkish reservoirs to the coast and undersea to Haifa in northern Israel. In November 2009, Turkey announced the initiation of an undersea pipeline to Northern Cyprus.

Privatization protests and failures of the 1990s and early 2000s led to increased demand for and recognition of water as a human right, respect for the inherent environmental rights of water, and resurgence of a commons approach to water management (c.f. the film Thirst). Despite decreased consumer support for-profit management of water utilities, efforts to strengthen the legal framework that prioritizes privatization continue. For example, Italian legislation coming into effect in 2012 limits the role of local government in developing and managing water utilities to public-private partnerships that compete on the market (Ferrando, Tomaso and Miguel Espichan, n.d.,  “Right over water or right to water: A global and local comparison of legal approaches,” Unpublished paper, International University College, Master of Science in Comparative Law, Economics and Finance). Public ownership of water utilities can only occur in those situations where there is no corporate or commercial interest.

Another powerful trend is the increased effort by governments to impose a security framework over water to insure the priority of sovereign rights to manage and use strategic resources. For example, the Southeast Anatolia project in Turkey (22 dams in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins) lies in the heart of ancient Kurdistan. Turkey’s water development projects will create an easily secured border, and capture and store a critical resource of potential marketable value for thirsty downstream and distant countries that, up to now, relied on the Tigris and Euphrates for water, energy and food. The rising waters will also drown ancient cities, create a watery barrier between Kurdish populations in Iraq and Syria, and forcibly displace many of the remaining Kurdish communities within Turkey. The construction of the Ataturk Dam alone displaced some 11,000 Kurds. The Ilisu Dam project promises the dispossession of another 36,000 or so people. At this writing Ilisu construction is on hold, following a 2009 loss of international financing due to human rights complaints.

Defining water as a national security resource also militarizes the water commons: water can be enclosed at gunpoint, and protestors charged with crimes against the state under “Patriot Act” legislation that the US pressured other nations adopt following 9/11. In 2009, some of the countries where people were arrested for protesting water development and charged for violation of national security acts include Turkey, El Salvador, China, India, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Borneo, Sudan, the US, Canada, Australia, Greece and Brazil.

In this brief review of emerging trends in water development it is also very important to note on-the-ground trends in social networks, information exchange, social documentation and advocacy. Increased communication between project-affected communities and engagement with more distant worlds (downstream, national, international civil society) has transformed dam-affected peoples. Changes include increased awareness of: (1) the fundamental rights of project-affected peoples, vulnerable groups, indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, including rights the right to materially participate and benefit from project development, and the right to free and prior informed consent; (2) environmental degradation, socioeconomic decline, and damages to health resulting from water enclosure, diversion and displacement; and (3) synergistic and cumulative impacts experienced by other project-affected communities.

Increased awareness of development impacts and the rights of dam-affected peoples has led to a rise in protests, calls for remediation, a strengthening of local and regional movements, such as the Movement of Dam Affected Peoples in Brazil (MAB); African Rivers Network; Latin American Network Against Dams and for Rivers, Communities and Water (REDLAR); Himalayan and Peninsular Hydro-Ecological Network (HYPHEN); and, the 1997, 2003 and upcoming 2010 “Rivers for Life” international meetings of dam-affected peoples.

In some cases, public protests over corruption and varied failures to address the social impacts of development-induced displacement have transformed governance, as illustrated, for example, in China’s social entitlement program for dam-displaced peoples. In establishing an annual pension for dam-displaced people in the countryside, the government has formally acknowledged their obligation to provide redress for the abuses accompanying past development projects.

Efforts to implement rights in new development project proposals, especially the right to free and prior informed consent, are also making some headway, as evidenced by the recent rise of consultas in Latin America. Originally a participatory element of financing agreements, with the incorporation of consultation and informed consent language in national legislation, consultas are increasingly taking on the status of plebiscite, meaning a legally binding vote by communities in support or rejection of development proposals (see Monti Aguirre, “One Person One Vote: The Voice of Community in Development Decisions,” International Rivers Review, June 2009:4-5; Brant McGee, “The Community Referendum: Participatory Democracy and the Right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent to Development,” Berkeley Journal of International Law 27[2]: 570-635).

Finally, in a few instances, efforts to transform the identification (and power) of dam-affected peoples within development projects from stakeholders to rightsholders, with the right to materially benefit from development income, are also gaining traction. Thus, host communities in the James Bay region have in recent years negotiated a share of hydroelectric energy profit as a means to mitigate the adverse social and environmental damages of large infrastructure development. The notion of resident peoples as rightsholders with an equity stake in development projects has been explored by the World Commission on Dams (see “Dams and Benefit Sharing” contribution to Thematic Review 1.1), the World Bank (see language in their 2004 involuntary resettlement sourcebook), and in recent essays by Michael Cernea, Thayer Scudder and others (see Anthony Oliver-Smith’s 2009 Development-Forced Displacement and Resettlement: A Global Human Rights Crisis).

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for the post. This topic reminds me of the struggle of Macli-ing Dulag of the Philippine Cordilleras whose martyrdom eventually forced Marcos to stall the construction of dams in the Philippines.

  2. [...] Water, Culture, Power: An Online Feature from Anthropology News from American Anthropological Association by Dinah [...]

  3. [...] sustainability news 28 01 2010 Political ecology/Anthropology: Barbara Rose Johnston talks emerging trends in the relationships between water, culture and power on the AAA [...]

  4. [...] this vein, anthropologist Barbara Johnston writes: Privatization protests and failures of the 1990s and early 2000s led to increased demand for and [...]

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