Dams as Aid: A Political Anatomy of Nordic Development Thinking

Dams as Aid: A Political Anatomy of Nordic Development Thinking

Dams as Aid: A Political Anatomy of Nordic Development Thinking

Dams as Aid: A Political Anatomy of Nordic Development Thinking


Through her examination of dams, Usher sheds light on wider issues of the political economy of aid. Her detailed case studies are located within a broad comparative and theoretical perspective.


Ann Danaiya Usher


This collection of essays starts from three premises: that large dams cause serious environmental and social impacts; that public opposition to dams exists in virtually every country where there is the democratic space to express dissent; and that because the negative effects of dams are borne disproportionately by the poor, Western donors face an intractable dilemma when they give dams as aid. This book is about how aid agencies handle that dilemma.

A dam is a cement wall that blocks the natural flow of a river. With hydro dams, which are discussed in this volume, the water is directed through turbines to produce electricity. Hydro power is said to be renewable because rivers run for ever, and cheap because once the structure is in place, rain falls freely from the heavens. This assessment is valid only when the impacts and 'hidden' costs of dams are ignored. All dams age and reservoirs fill up with silt; a process that is much accelerated in the tropics, where river sediment loads tend to be higher than in temperate climates. Decommissioning can be even more expensive than construction. Yet the eventual problems of how to remove dams and restore riverbeds and what to do with vast, mud-filled reservoirs are almost never discussed by builders or aid financiers. Taking into account the finite life span of power dams, which can be as short as a few decades in the tropics, would increase their cost significantly. With a handful of exceptions among the thousands of dams world-wide, this inevitable cost has been left, vaguely, for the next generation to deal with.

As a result of the overwhelming resistance to dams, however, both in the industrialized countries and in the South, the environmental and social impacts have started to be more widely recognized. Dams cause ecological disruption and reduction in biological diversity both up and downstream. Farming systems, pasture lands and forests are flooded, affecting communities that depend on these ecosystems. The obstruction in the movement of water and organisms affects water quality and habitats in the river, floodplain, estuary and coasts

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