Social Science Baha
Official

Water Unites, Water Divides: Resistance to the West Seti and Upper Karnali Dams in Nepal

Christopher Butler

Several South Asian countries have pinned a hefty portion of their future growth to hydropower from dams (Crow and Singh 2009; Pomeranz 2009). To ensure their success, state and corporate authorities have privatized many natural resources formerly considered to be common property, a development that dispossesses rural residents of land and water access, and delivers a serious impediment to already difficult livelihoods.  Nepal is no exception to this trend. In a country the size of the state of Indiana, Nepal hosts two dams with two more currently under construction, and seven others proposed for construction within the next decade (Dharmadhikary 2008).

Having recently emerged from a ten-year civil conflict (1996-2006) with Maoist insurgents, the new Nepalese republic is faced with a delicate balancing act: attempting to grow the national economy, partly through hydropower export, and to provide meaningful representation to rural areas from whence the insurgency sprang and where the dams will be located. While the rise in ethnic and caste interests played a key role in the new republic’s post-insurgency democratization, some scholars note that newly acquired rights and cultural recognition will remain toothless until living standards are improved for low caste and marginalized ethnic groups in the rural areas.

This preliminary study investigates the different forms of resistance to the proposed West Seti and Upper Karnali dams in western Nepal. Using mixed methods, this comparative project examines the ways that dams threaten to upset historical patterns of water access and land use in rural areas and the ways that these potential changes influence a community’s willingness to mobilise in resistance and the mode of that resistance. Secondly, this paper considers the extent to which competing visions of progress expressed by governmental and non-governmental interests intersect with local knowledge and moral economies. The systematic comparison between sites generates insights into processes that shape conflict and mediation as it also provides details about the multivariate influences that come to bear on key actors.

The preliminary data gathered at West Seti and Upper Karnali may serve a crucial, far-reaching concern: If development of rural areas and state revenue generation depends on hydropower, this growth can only be sustained by examining the forms and to what extent rural people apprehend the potential future changes to their livelihoods by a proposed dam. Furthermore, understanding the nature of resistance to dams in rural areas may lead to more productive and informed dialogue between the state, the dam construction firms, and local residents. As a result, local residents—particularly low caste and marginalized ethnic groups—may be better positioned to demand and receive commensurate representation and compensation.

Note: This is preliminary research conducted in support of fieldwork that the author will undertake in 2013-2014.