Dams as Centaurs

EDITORS NOTE: This is the second article in a four-part series which explores the role of water in human conflict and politics. The series marks (though is not affiliated with) World Water Day 2016, a UN initiative to promote awareness of water issues. More information on World Water Day can be found here. The first article in the series can be found here.

By: Filippo Menga

Aswan Dam, Egypt. Source: WikiMedia

In Greek mythology, the centaur was a creature with the head, arms, and torso of a man and the body and legs of a horse. The Italian thinker Niccolò Machiavelli used the image of the centaur to delineate the traits and attitudes of a good ruler, the Prince, who would know how to use his strength (or force), but also his intellect. A Prince had to be respected to obtain obedience, as in the ideal case of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ‘possessed many qualities which earned him great respect, all his life he succeeded in holding both of these [the soldiers and the populace] in check and he was never hated or scorned’.[1]

Although this might at first sound as a conceptual overstretch, the image of the centaur can be useful to metaphorically represent one of the least philosophical and more down-to-earth (or water) structures of our time, major dams.[2] In order to prove so, some context is needed.

Dams are, perhaps, the most spectacular way to tame water resources. They can serve multiple purposes, such as generating hydroelectricity, controlling water flows, and allowing irrigated agriculture and urban development. As illustrated by the work of the US-based NGO International Rivers, we are currently witnessing a new boom in the global dam industry. But things have not always been this way. Following the first boom in the early and mid-twentieth century, the number of dams being built worldwide started to decline in the 1970s. Sanjeev Khagram[3] proposes four arguments to explain this phenomenon.

The first is technical, due to the overexploitation of rivers and the subsequent scarcity of suitable sites where new dams could be built. The second is financial, and is related to the shortage of funding for this kind of projects, which are notoriously very costly. On top of that, the hydropower sector is frequently linked with corruption. Transparency International, an NGO which monitors corporate and political corruption, dedicated its 2008 Global Corruption Report to Corruption in the Water Sector, noting that the ‘hydropower sector’s massive investment volumes (estimated at US$50–60 billion annually over the coming decades) and highly complex, customised engineering projects can be a breeding ground for corruption in the design, tendering and execution of large-scale dam projects around the world’.[4] The third reason is economic, and refers to the viability of cheaper alternatives (such as natural gas power plants), while the fourth is political, and stems from public protests against dams and the emergence of the environmental awareness paradigm inspired by the Green movement.

As a result of the growing opposition to large dams, in 1997 the World Bank (which is the single largest investor in large dams worldwide) ignited the work of the World Commission on Dams (WCD). This body had the responsibility of reviewing the development effectiveness of large dams, along with their social, economic and environmental impact. The work of the WCD resulted in a report, published in 2000, which noted that ‘Dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable’, and yet, ‘[i]n too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment’.[5]

While all this might lead one to think that the large dam business was staring at a gloomy future in the early 2000s, the trend changed, and hundreds of new, extremely costly and controversial projects have been launched in the last few years. China and India, in particular, are now leading the dam movement worldwide, driven by the prospect of producing more clean hydroelectricity while also increasing their agricultural production to meet growing energy and food needs.

Ten years after the release of the WCD report, a special issue of the journal Water Alternatives identified the new drivers of dam (and hydropower) development, including a rise in water and energy demands, climate change, the increase in the price of carbon fuels, and the abovementioned emergence of new funders. Although all these motives seem valid, it is worth mentioning that there is a number of low-impact and non-structural alternatives to dams (such as small hydroelectric power plants, infiltration galleries and wells, and seasonal dams) that would not cause, for instance, regional controversies and the displacement of thousands of people, and would not even require the huge investments necessary to build a large dam. Then why do governments still tend to prefer taking the hard road? Here is where the centaur can provide analytical insights to understand this phenomenon.

As Bent Flyvbjerg effectively sums it up, megaprojects have to be considered as both political and physical animals to appreciate the rationale behind their construction.[6] The performative effects of dam building, those that are clearly visible such as the diversion of a river or the generation of hydroelectricity, epitomize the strength of the centaur, its animal side. Yet, there is also a hidden and more abstract dimension that accompanies the construction of a large dam and that corresponds to the sapiens part of the centaur, its ideological production. I am referring to what can be termed the “dam ideology”, or in other words, the process through which ruling elites use the symbolism of major dams to gain legitimacy and bolster a sense of national identity and patriotism.[7] This aspect, I argue, should be considered – along with the ones mentioned above – as a driver of dam development. In fact, if we apply this analytical lens to some of the current regional controversies triggered by dam building, we can further our understanding of the issues at stake and of the apparently uncompromising attitude of the actors involved.

centaur one
Classic representation of the Centaur in ancient Greek mythology.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam currently under construction on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, which, when finished, will be the largest dam in Africa provides great example. Beyond electricity generation, flood control and grand irrigation schemes, the discursive weight of the ideology attached to the dam suggests that the Otherness is as important as the Self. The fact that Egypt, a neighbouring and rival country, opposes the dam, can reinforce among its proponents the idea of the necessity of its construction. Matters related to self-determination, sovereignty, the assertion of power, the control of nature and, above all, patriotism and national identity, are all part of the discursive constructions surrounding the dam. Furthermore, at the domestic level, the dam can be portrayed as a nationally cohesive element that unites the population around a national idea of progress and success. While this phenomenon has been studied in the past by environmental historians (some iconic examples are the Hoover Dam in the United States, the High Aswan Dam in Egypt and the Marathon Dam in Greece), scholars studying transboundary water relations have so far overlooked what appears as a twenty-first century revamp of high modernism, that is ‘a strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I’.[8]

This seems to be happening not only in the Nile, but also in other river basins around the world. In Central Asia, for instance, Tajikistan is building the large and controversial Rogun Dam (strongly opposed by neighbouring Uzbekistan), whose meaning has now gone beyond that of a simple multi-purpose dam. The Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has often reiterated that the dam is Tajikistan’s national idea. It therefore seems difficult to imagine a government giving up on a national idea, even though this might cause regional tensions.

This is not to say that large dams should be analysed only for their discursive impact. Rather, both dimensions of dam building development – the performative and the discursive – should go hand in hand if we are to fully understand its meaning and to effectively address its necessity. Less controversial alternatives to large dams do exist, but their symbolic and discursive impact is of course negligible compared to that of a megaproject. After all, the centaur wouldn’t go very far without his legs, and yet, it is his mind that sets the direction.

Filippo Menga is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at The University of Manchester, where he is carrying out a study on dams and nation-building through case-studies from Ethiopia and Tajikistan. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations awarded by the University of Cagliari and he has been visiting researcher at Tallinn University, the University of St Andrews and King’s College London. His works have recently appeared in the journals Nationalities Papers and Water Policy.

Acknowledgement: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 654861.



[1] N. Machiavelli, The Prince (New American Library, 1958), p. 108.

[2] The International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) defines a major dam as a dam with a height of 150 m or more from the foundation, a reservoir storage capacity of at least 25 km3 and an electrical generation capacity of at least 1000 MW.

[3] S. Khagram, Dams and Development (Cornell University Press, 2004).

[4] Transparency International, Global Corruption Report 2008: Corruption in the Water Sector (Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. xxv.

[5] The World Commission on Dams, Dams and Development: a new framework for decision-making (Earthscan, 2000), p. xxviii.

[6] B. Flyvbjerg, N. Bruzelius, and W. Rothengatter, Megaprojects and risk: Making decisions in an uncertain world (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[7] F. Menga, ‘Building a nation through a dam: the case of Rogun in Tajikistan’, in Nationalities Papers, Vol. 43, Issue 3 (2015).

[8] J. C. Scott, Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (Yale University Press, 1998).

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