Dams: securitization, risks and the global water-energy-food nexus

Dam viewed from above

This project looks at how the agenda of the ‘Water-Energy-Food nexus’ has led to some forms of water storage being favoured over others – in particular, how large dams are chosen over other small and large-scale water storage solutions.

The Water-Energy-Food (WEF) nexus is emerging globally as a research agenda and governance framework for understanding the relationship between water resources development and the energy and food sectors. This project will research case studies from Nepal-India and Thailand-Laos, countries that each share transboundary rivers (Mekong, Ganga) and that are increasingly tied together by jointly developed water resource development projects and cross-border power trade.

Are large dams the best way to store water?

The hydrological cycle is a complex and dynamic system, and becoming even more so under the conditions of climate change. Policy approaches emerging from the global nexus discourse have tended to argue in favour of building more large dams as a way to control hydrological variability and thus manage the trade-offs between water, energy and food. Yet, there are strong arguments that plural water storage solutions that incorporate a range of water storage options (from very small and traditional technologies to larger-scale technologies, where appropriate) are more durable and resilient, as well as more socially just.

The aim of the project is to turn upside down the nexus and storage logic. While storage is usually seen as both a solution to water-climate security and hydrological uncertainty and the water-led energy and food security nexus, we will start with the proposed solution and see how it contributes to these securities. By starting with the solution, we will seek to understand how alternative pathways around storage and their use in terms of energy and food have been dismissed. This project will allows us to complicate overly-simplified arguments about ensuring water, energy and food security through large storage alone. We seek to recast the plural definition of the water problem and redefine the boundaries of the potential solutions around water storage in addressing hydrological uncertainty and climate change.

Concepts and ideas

Our project’s conceptual objectives are along two lines. Firstly, we want to understand how framings of preferred solutions have impacted on the dynamics of the policy process towards water storage choices and the chosen development pathways, as well as alternatives that were discounted. Secondly, we aim to contribute to the idea of dynamic systems through the example of plural water storage systems.In combining these two objectives, the project highlights the 3Ds approach (direction, distribution and diversity):

  • diversity: the need to move away from social and technological fixed indicators
  • distribution: the need to recognise those excluded and marginalised from preferred solutions
  • direction: the need to recognise alternative pathways.

Further questions are:

  • how have development pathways been legitimized (or not) in planning and assessment processes through discourses of water (or food or energy) security?
  • how secure are these ‘securities’ in practice?

Research questions

The Nexus and a dynamic approach to Water, Energy and Food security

  • Who is promoting the food-water-energy-climate nexus, how and why?
  • To what extent are sustainability, resilience and security understood as static systems?
  • How are Scarcity and Crisis narratives shaping the nexus?

The nexus and non-nexus in South & South East Asia : The new political economies and imaginaries of Asia’s major rivers

  • Does the nexus have a meaning in the region?
  • What are the driving forces behind food and energy supply and demand affecting the new political economies of Asia’s rivers?
  • What are the imaginaries and unplanned developments around the future of Asia’s rivers?

Storage solutions versus storage systems: (re)discovering plural clumsy solutions towards social justice

  • How are storage options justified according to different understandings of food, energy, climate and water security?
  • How do assessment tools promote particular storage solutions?
  • What is the local understanding and practice around the relationship between food, energy and water (the ‘nexus’)?
  • To what extent do different storage systems address the trade-offs/synergies within the nexus? How can plural, ‘clumsy’ solutions be promoted?

Find out more:


STEPS members working on this project:

Project partners:

  • Dipak Gyawali – UNU-IAS/UNESCO
  • Carl Middleton – Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University (Bangkok, Thailand)

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