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Dam-nations? A study on dams, nation-building and transboundary water relations through case-studies from Ethiopia and Tajikistan

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DAM-NET (Dam-nations? A study on dams, nation-building and transboundary water relations through case-studies from Ethiopia and Tajikistan)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

DAM-NET set out to enable the researcher to carry out a state-of the art research project, investigating how ruling elites can use the symbolic value of a large hydraulic infrastructure to construct and disseminate their particular idea of the nation and legitimize their hold on power. As a result, the study expanded on the largely unexplored link between water and social power, bringing new insights into the analysis of transboundary water relations and on the role that discourse and nationalism play in water politics. Throughout a varied set of activities, the project allowed transfer of knowledge and the training of the researcher, thus considerably enhancing his potential and future career prospects.

The main objective of the project was to construct a theoretical and analytical framework to understand how the construction of mega dams can influence both the nation-building process and transboundary water relations, and outlining how these three elements are correlated. The project also had two subsets of objectives that complemented and expanded its scope: i) to provide transfer of knowledge and the training of the researcher at several levels and through a diverse range of activities; and ii) to disseminate research results to the research community and to the public rapidly and in easily reachable outlets.
The main objective of the project has been fully achieved through the preparation, submission, and publication of a wide range of high-level academic articles and policy pieces that led to the creation and consolidation of a theoretical and analytical framework to understand the new boom in global dam building, and for the explanation of seemingly irreparable regional conflicts triggered by the construction of extremely costly megaprojects. The work performed by the researcher unfolded, at first, in a detailed literature review, and subsequently, in data collection through fieldwork, phone interviews, and online news archives. This has resulted in a number of publications in academic outlets and online platforms, the researcher’s participation to international workshops and conferences, two Marie Sklodowska-Curie Ambassador events, and the organisation of the “Interdisciplinary workshop on water, technology and the nation-state” convened by the researcher at the University of Manchester in October 27-28, 2016. The 2-day workshop brought together over 40 researchers from around the world who engaged in discussions aimed at advancing the scholarly understanding of the complex and often hidden connection between water and the nation building process. As a result of the workshop, the researcher signed a contract with the publisher Routledge Earthscan to co-edit, together with Erik Swyngedouw, a volume that explores the link between water and the nation-state, and whose publication is planned for early 2018.

The first of the two subsets of additional objectives (i: to provide transfer of knowledge and the training of the researcher at several levels and through a diverse range of activities) has been achieved through a wide range of activities. The researcher has greatly benefited from regular monthly meetings and frequent email exchanges with his mentor, who provided guidance and advice on how to develop the project’s objectives and ideas. The researcher has also been an active member of the SERG (Society and Environment Research Group) group within Geography in Manchester, where he shared his ideas and publication plans, received advice from his colleagues and also provided guidance to colleagues trough the organisation of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Ambassador event on EU funding and on how to write a successful project proposal. Transfer of knowledge has also taken place through the participation to workshops and research seminars held at the University of Manchester, as well as through attendance and participation to numerous international gatherings. As evidence of the high quality professional training received by the researcher and the consequent consolidation of his academic profile, the researcher has taken on a permanent academic position at the University of Reading as Lecturer in Human Geography on September 1st, 2017.

The second of the two additional objectives (ii: to disseminate research results to the research community and to the public rapidly and in easily reachable outlets) has also been achieved, through publications in the following outlets: Geoforum, New Security Beat: the blog of the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, Political Geography, Strife Journal, The blog of the International Water Association, and Water Alternatives.
The progress beyond the state of the art can be summarised through the findings of two publications in particular, which used original empirical material to advance new theoretical insights. The article ‘Domestic and International Dimensions of Transboundary Water Politics’ published in Water Alternatives (2016), for instance, drew on Robert Putnam’s two-level game theory to illustrate how the interrelation between the domestic and the international dimensions matters in transboundary water politics. Here, perspectives from IR, political geography, and water politics served to present a conceptual framework which was then linked to studies on nationalism. This helped to highlight the analytical relevance of such a perspective to understand the issue of large dams through the cases of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia and the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan as examples. The article ‘Hydropolis: Reinterpreting the Polis in Water Politics’ published in Political Geography (2017), likewise, advanced the notion of the hydropolis, a reinterpretation of Hannah Arendt definition of the polis, to explore how ruling elites can manipulate the public opinion to politically construct a large dam as a foreign policy matter. This, it was argued, serves to conceal the negative consequences of a dam so that issues related to its social and environmental impact are removed from the national political debate. The case of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia was here used to illustrate how a large dam can become a geopolitical object grounded on the friend/enemy distinction, in the context of the longstanding geopolitical tensions in the Nile River Basin.
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