The geopolitics of knowledge production and circulation in transboundary rivers: the case of the Mekong basin

Free Public Lecture

The geopolitics of knowledge production and circulation in transboundary rivers: the case of the Mekong basin

Theatre 2
207-221 Bouverie Street
207 Bouverie Street


The rivers of mainland Southeast Asia are confronting a series of intertwined social, political, and biophysical crises. The ongoing construction of major hydroelectric dams, particularly in the basins' lower and more populated reaches, is leading to significant socioecological changes. Multiple scientific studies have suggested that proceeding with the planned dam construction will disrupt the region’s incredibly productive fisheries and threaten the livelihoods of millions of basin residents. These effects will almost certainly be exacerbated by global and regional climate change. Yet increased understanding of the adverse consequences of dams for hydrological and ecological processes is having minimal impact on decision-making around hydropower development. While local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and certain scientists draw on this knowledge to oppose or question accelerated dam building, state officials and hydropower developers have turned to the expertise of engineering and technological assessments in order to justify dam construction. Drawing on work in political geography, political ecology, and science and technology studies (STS), I ask two primary questions. First, why does engineering/technological knowledge retain so much legitimacy and authority in the face of mounting scientific knowledge about ecological change? Secondly, how are narratives of progress deployed and co-produced in the contested epistemologies of large dams as development? I conclude with some examples of how contestations over dams seem to be shifting epistemological boundaries in meaningful ways, creating new spaces for knowledge production and transfer. To answer these questions, I focus on three contested dams that are at various stages of construction in the Mekong basin: the nearly complete Xayaburi Dam, the under-construction Don Sahong Dam, and the planned Pak Beng Dam. The research advances understandings of the politics of contested knowledges as they become manifest in the conceptualization and governance of large dams in transboundary basins.


  • Professor Chris Sneddon
    Professor Chris Sneddon, Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies