Dams: securitization, risks and the nexus

This is one of a series of case stories showing how STEPS Centre projects have used methods and methodologies in particular settings.


The water-energy-food nexus has emerged as a global research agenda and governance framework in recent years. Within it, water storage – often large dams – is seen as a key solution to hydrological uncertainty and water and climate (in)security. Building on the analytical framework of “dynamic sustainability”, the objectives of the STEPS Centre research project ‘Dams: securitization, risks and the global water-energy-food nexus’ are:

  • to examine the multiple frames given to water, energy and food security guided by the question “[security] for whom, by whom and from whom, security of what and for what?”;
  • unpack how discourses of security have privileged particular water storage options whilst downplaying others; and
  •  to introduce non-equilibrium thinking to non-traditional forms of securities, including food, water and energy security,

thus offering new thinking on how governance challenges of water storage can be approached through pursing plural water storage system solutions.

Case studies

The project draws on comparative case studies from Nepal-India and Thailand-Laos to explore how discourses of security have materially shaped development pathways on the ground. The case studies are not just looking at the project per se but are examining regional trajectories and histories and the interaction between water, food and energy systems.

The question of storage is of crucial importance in South East Asia and South Asia as it has lowest storage space per capita compared to rest of the world. Geographically the project compares the highland-lowland case of Nepal-India with that of Laos-Thailand. A set of case studies would look at the different historical trajectories that led to the domination or disappearance of different institutions.

  Laos/Thailand Nepal/India What   the case shows
1 Isan West   Seti A national project but with conceptualizations that assure its being enmeshed in upstream/downstream issues
2 Nam Theun2 Mahakali A bilateral project with severe national repercussions. Has forced debates about   the not-so-obvious, hidden nexuses
3 Xayaburi Kosi High Dam Bilateral project but with overwhelming regional and international repercussions that will define whether they can even take off.


The project has three major objectives.

1)   To contribute to a new understanding of sustainability and security as dynamic systems

In order to do so, a critical literature review on sustainability and security and resilience and security will be produced and analyzed to show how security solution promote stability and durability and shy away from resilience and robustness. The working paper objective is to open up debates in international policy events on the nature of the water-food-energy nexus, its narrative and framing and how it promotes a particular pathway to security and sustainability, ignoring other alternatives in terms of resilience and robustness. This framework will allows us to redefine the boundaries of the potential solutions and recast the plural definition of the water problem, in particular the concern around water storage as a result of hydrological uncertainty and climate change.

2)   To frame our analysis within the context of a new political economy of water in Asia – built upon the foundations of the old political economy – that are imagining new visions for the future of Asia’s major rivers.

Desk-based literature review and interviews with policy-makers will map current policy frameworks and debates in these two regions with a focus on ‘the nexus’.

3)   To draw lessons from specific historical case studies and understand how specific solutions have been decided at the expense of others.

This will be done though field-based research which will assess individual projects in each country.


Drawing on both policy analysis and the field-based case studies, we argue that the governance of food, water and energy security – historically concerned with safety and certainty from contingency – has been led by stability and durability approaches that insufficiently acknowledge uncertainty and the inevitability of change. This has thus privileged control-orientated solutions, including the construction of (large) man-made structures in the belief they are more secure and more sustainable. The project will recommend that to accommodate complexity and (climate) uncertainty a shift in governance is required towards resilience and robustness approaches where the limits to control are acknowledged, and plural water storage systems and “clumsy solutions” are pursued. The project also recommends that making visible the multiple framings of security between actors – and how these are shaping policy objectives and project outcomes – is vital to incorporate and address issues of social justice within the nexus.