The Shaping of a River: Dam-Building and Regional Politics on the Mekong, 1954–2020

Andrea Zhu, University of California, Los Angeles

What drives the infrastructural development of rivers? Literature on development explains the dynamics of dam-building through four main drivers: first, conflict between states both outside and within a given river basin; second, national development strategies and institutions formed by state elites; third, transnational advocacy networks of non-state actors; and fourth, global reconfigurations of state-market relations in the neoliberal era. Using sources from the US National Archives and multilateral governance institutions as well as secondary literature, I reconstruct the case of the Mekong River, which connects China and mainland Southeast Asia, and assess each of these drivers in explaining the process of dam-building. From the ideational inception of dam development in 1954 up to the present-day hydropower boom, dams built on the Mekong have changed in three ways: from supporting multipurpose rural development to exclusively providing electricity, from locally oriented to transnationally networked, and from being concentrated in northeast Thailand to spreading throughout the basin, especially in southwest China and Laos. I locate these changes through four historical periods and argue that no single actor drives infrastructure development on the river, but rather changing configurations of actors’ interests and conflicts between multiple paradigms of development.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 78. Community impacts and economics