The Arun-III hydropower project in Nepal is one of the symbolic projects which marked the end of the 20th Century dam building era with the withdrawal of the World Bank from big infrastructure projects in low and middle income countries. At an estimated cost of USD 1.1 billion spread over a construction period of eight to ten years, the 402 MW project was to have been the largest investment and most ambitious infrastructure undertaking of Nepal until that time. On account of its high social, ecological, and financial costs, the project attracted severe criticism from both domestic and transnational civil society organizations and was finally shelved in 1995 despite being promoted for almost a decade by an international consortium of Western donors and the Government of Nepal. More than a decade later, an Indian state-owned company won the contract to build an upgraded version of the project (900 MW) with the prospect of exporting the surplus energy to India and turning Nepal into a regional energy basket.
Given its chequered history, Arun-III’s renewal and newly acquired recognition as Nepal’s national pride project has raised intriguing questions about the key processes that enable or disable dam construction under specific conditions and drew attention to a wider, more complex landscape of ‘new’ institutions, actors, ideas, discursive rationalities, and practices that operate across multiple spatialities, and have managed to successfully transform development outcomes.
This paper explores the drivers, motivations and projected benefits that supported the conceptualization of the Arun-III project in the 1990s, and the grievances that led to its demise initiating a larger debate around capital-intensive, foreign-funded mega dam projects. The findings of this paper highlight the significance of both material and symbolic factors in contributing to the success of anti-dam activism. Additionally, by examining a range of diverse (overlapping) arguments emanating from different groups of stakeholders, the paper demonstrates the discursive complexity of counter frames employed by social actors which in the case of Arun-III, ultimately contributed to the efficacy of the activist movement by widening its popular appeal. The paper suggests that decision-making around dams can be messy and is often driven by multi-scalar political processes rather than purely economic or technical considerations. Finally, the paper reflects on how the current phase of Arun-III construction has been shaped by Nepal’s changing socioeconomic and geopolitical context, which has narrowed the potential for radical opposition against mega dams.
In the context of a global resurgence in dam-building, the paper contributes to the current academic literature on mega dams by examining the manner in which previously halted projects are being increasingly revived and promoted by a new assemblage of actors, processes, and techniques. It demonstrates the importance of ‘framing’ in infrastructural politics and suggests that the eventual outcome of ideological or material interventions related to large infrastructure projects often depends on an alignment of specific (geo)political, financial, and social conditions that shape and alter the way infrastructure is interpreted, understood, and enacted.