Back to the book

I’ll be spending the next months in Boston while I work out the final chapters of the book I’ve been writing this year. It should be great – I’ve got loads of interesting archival material on early U.S. water policy. To my knowledge, this material hasn’t been published on anywhere. If it is, it is well hidden.

I’ve also been enjoying the surge in publications that identify how U.S. water policy ‘went global’ in the mid-20th century. Here are a few pieces I think are particularly good:

Sneddon, C. 2012. The “Sinew of Development”: Cold War geopolitics, technological expertise and river alteration in Southeast Asia, 1954-1975. Social Studies of Science 42(4):564-590.

One of the most significant yet largely hidden outcomes of the Cold War was the proliferation of hundreds of large, multipurpose dams throughout Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America under the auspices of programs of water resource development. These programs were the result of technical assistance programs created and guided by various organs of the US government. Carried out as an effort to convince newly independent states of America’s support and good intentions, this proliferation of water expertise was spearheaded by the US Bureau of Reclamation – an agency of the Department of Interior that became embroiled within efforts of the State Department to achieve specific geopolitical goals by containing the spread of global communism. This paper examines the evolution of a technopolitical network constructed around the Bureau’s most intensive engagement in supervising water resource development overseas, the promotion and design of the Pa Mong dam on the Mekong River during the 1960s. This case contributes to ongoing debates over the convergence between technical expertise and water by considering the complex intermingling – and co-production – of geopolitical practices and technological knowledge and expertise in efforts to transform rivers that were characteristic of the mid-20th century.

Sneddon, C. and C. Fox. 2011. The Cold War, the US Bureau of Reclamation and the technopolitics of river basin development, 1950-1970. Political Geography, 30(8):450-460.

This paper examines the links between Cold War geopolitics and economic development to explain the relatively rapid proliferation of the concept of river basin development throughout so-called “developing areas” of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America during the latter half of the twentieth century. The research focuses on the United States Bureau of Reclamation, the most significant water resource development agency of the US government, and its engagement in what it termed “foreign activities” beginning in the aftermath of World War II. Grounded in recent work on technopolitics, the constructed scales of water resource development, and histories of the “global” Cold War, this research examines the advancement of water resource development in the Litani River basin in Lebanon—as guided by staff of the US Bureau of Reclamation—during the period from 1950 to 1970. The Bureau operated as a geopolitical agent attempting to implement a universalized model of river basin development, but encountered continuous difficulties in the form of political and biophysical contingencies. The Bureau’s efforts, centred on the basin as the most appropriate unit of development, were consistently undercut by scale-making projects related to global and regional geopolitical concerns. The research concludes that understandings of the technopolitics of development interventions would benefit from a closer engagement with recent discussions regarding the construction of spatial scale within political geography and related fields. River basin development and its material transformation of multiple locales remains one of the largely neglected, but vitally important, legacies of Cold War geopolitics.

Bakker K, 2013, “Constructing ‘public’ water: the World Bank, urban water supply, and the biopolitics of development” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31(2) 280 – 300

Abstract. This paper presents a historical analysis of the evolution of the World Bank’s policies on urban water supply networks, from 1960 to the late 1980s. The analysis frames urban water supply as an attempt (contested and incomplete) to extend the biopolitical power of developmental states. I argue that the World Bank’s agenda was predicated on a set of contradictions (and an untenable public/private binary) that contributed to the emergence of ‘state failure’ arguments by the late 1980s. This perspective enables critical reflection on the historical origins of the concept of ‘state failure’, and on contemporary debates over urbanization, infrastructure, and development.


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