Development is undergoing an infrastructure turn, no more so than in resurgent dam building. But how are new projects planned and constructed? Are we seeing the underestimation of economic, environmental and social costs? Have past critiques changed infrastructure building in the twenty-first century? A new paper by Barnaby Dye uses the case of the Rusumo Falls Dam on the Rwanda-Tanzania border to answer these bigger questions.

The paper advances a new concept, the technicians’ realm, that describes a practise of decision making where key decisions about dam infrastructure, about compensation and mitigation and about the study of their impacts are controlled exclusively by technicians. In other words, there is no participation, no reaching out to other stakeholders or affected people. Only formal scientific knowledge, and not local expertise and opinions, are counted.

The paper analyses the extent to which this concept was present in the Rusumo Falls Dam. The dam was initiated by in intergovernmental organisation the Nile Basin Initiative (through its subsidiary Nelsap). Their secretariat took key decision about the project, with Tanzanian, Rwandan and Burundian governments officially approving the dam in 2012, with World Bank funding. Nelsap and the World Bank pushed more reformist dam-building practices, ones that tried to avoid creating a technicians’ realm.

The article shows that this did make some important differences in reducing certain impacts. For example, the number of people affected was reduced to a 20th of its original forecast through a decrease in the dam’s size. However, efforts at reform only went so far. Overall, the process of creating knowledge and discerning compensation was predominantly expert-centric. The article therefore demonstrates nuanced change in the infrastructure turn, the incorporation of reform but also the continued relevance of past critiques of dams.



Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of FutureDAMS as a whole.

Photo by: Amakuru (based on copyright claims). [CC BY-SA 3.0 ]

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