Dams and the Anthropocene

Despite the proliferation of tens of thousands of mega-dams in the 20th century they are still being planned – a mega-dam is one that is over 15 meters high. A recently proposed one in Malaysia has been met with strong resistance. If you are curious about just how many big dams exist and when they came online, watch this short clip made by Bernhard Lehner:

The continued push for large dams is now coming from the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, which you can download here. The protocol is being advanced by the International Hydropower Association. The protocol claims to advance a “neutral platform” for sustainable hydropower through multi-stakeholder consensus. This would be a real achievement, but I am highly doubtful that there is any neutral platform to be had – a point I’ve made and remade since writing the introduction to our book on water ethics.

I’m not alone in my critical stance. Reviews from several quarters are already taking issue with the new protocol. You can read responses from the International Rivers Association, who also include a way to have your input into the current 60-day window of consultation here.

But why should we care about the proliferation of large dams? This is a good question, to which there are lots of good, yet conflicting answers. It is interesting to me that these issues are rising alongside the Global Water System Project’s conference on water in the anthropocene. The concern with the Anthropocene is that humans are dominating global systems in a way that is pushing them into new and uncharted territory – where the conditions may be quite different from those in which many species and processes evolved.

Here is a video put together on water in the Anthropocene that looks at more than just dams. If it doesn’t work for you, click here.


  1. Reblogged this on Fluid Lives and commented:
    Fascinating video clip (via the excellent ‘anthropo.scene’) showing the development and proliferation of dams globally, from the 1800s. What is most interesting is that there are two, even three in India in 1800, only topped by 4(?) in Japan and only one shown elsewhere, in Spain. Dams have been hugely controversial in India, as the site of perhaps the best known anti-dams campaigns globally, principally the Narmarda Bachao Andolan. Yet the persistence of colonial and pre-colonial infrastructure in shaping different groups access to water on a day to day basis is still significant. While dams are often seen as a contemporary issue, and the basis for significant ‘subaltern’ social movements (albeit the most effective are well linked with well connected, elite middle class figures), it is clear that much older infrastructures persist, often literally dug into, and under the ground to have an impact on contemporary life.


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