Distraction Free Reading

Is Uncertainty a Useful Concept? Tracking Environmental Damage in the Lao Hydropower Industry

The collapse last week of a major hydropower dam in southern Laos, the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy, as a tropical storm dumped an unknown, but massive, volume of water into its reservoir, seems to have prompted at least a little soul-searching for a country that considers itself ‘the Battery of Southeast Asia.’ It’s not very often that large dams collapse, but it’s the second time it’s happened this year in Laos (the prior one was much smaller), and some readers may have been affected by the near-collapse of the Oroville Dam—the tallest dam in the United States—in central California in 2017, prompting the evacuation of 180,000 people. Laos has far lower population density—about 10,000 people have been affected by the still under-construction dam—and as of the time of writing there are perhaps a dozen dead and several hundred missing. But a dam doesn’t have to collapse for it to be a disaster. Even when dams work well, in the best case scenarios they produce a tremendous degree of uncertainty for the people they affect about what might happen and what comes next. 

People living along the Xe Pian River in Sanamxay District after being flooded by the Xe Pian Xe Nam Noi dam. If you know Lao, you will notice that a woman says that it is a natural disaster, but in fact, it was one created by human error associated with the dam.

Posted by Ian Baird on Wednesday, July 25, 2018


Video: Survivors of Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy Dam collapse waiting to be rescued.

Dams don’t even need to be very large for the problems they cause to be far-reaching and unpredictable, notwithstanding the money spent on researching their environmental issues. Moreover, because of the ways environmental issues get short shrift from developers, these uncertainties are greatly exacerbated by the refusal to invest in research, the difficulties developers and authorities have with listening to people’s needs, and the frequent misrepresentation of the dams’ impacts.

It’s a mistake to think that dams result in regulated and regimented rivers, since dammed rivers continue to change in unpredictable ways for decades, and there is little investment in environmental research or mitigation. This can be understood as the production of uncertainty.

Business Knowledge and Uncertainty

In my research on environmental expertise in the Lao hydropower industry, I try to understand how industry managers, engineers and environmental technicians understand environmental problems from inside an industry heavily criticized by environmentalists. I show that when activists are effective, industry insiders tend to shift from discourses of authoritative expertise toward more open-ended, performative management approaches that emphasize a plurality of viewpoints, at the expense of reliable empirical knowledge. It’s not only an issue of profit-motive. It’s also—just as important, I think—an issue of an ethos that’s focused on contingent achievements rather than reliable, scientific or authoritative empirical knowledge.

I studied a specific project, the Theun-Hinboun Dam, that activists had successfully targeted and won some important concessions. The project was partly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and was a joint venture between the Lao government, and Scandinavian and Thai investors. At that time the project itself was managed almost exclusively by foreigners. The activist coalition included groups like Mekong Watch and FIVAS, a Norwegian group, but there were, and still are, no activist NGO or civil society groups in Laos, although some specific individuals from Laos were involved.

Flooded paddy fields, what villagers now call “risky paddy,” a neologism referring to areas that flood erratically. Photo by Jerome Whitington – all rights reserved.

Laos’s river valleys are heavily settled and conventionally they are the backbone of rural society. Rivers are also strongly culturally valued, with fish playing a major role in nutrition and local commerce especially for ethnic Lao and other Tai groups (the country is very ethnically diverse). Free rivers have their own time as they ebb and flow due to seasonal cycles, but dammed rivers fundamentally change character as their temporality is affected by the Thailand’s demand for electricity (the country’s primary export market). Flows of sediment change dramatically as silt is trapped above the dams, and erosion downstream can send hundreds of thousands of tons of sediment pulsing down the rivers, radically changing flood regimes each year and erratically wiping out valuable cropland. Fish migration, essential for the spawning cycles of many species, is blocked. Erosion also has a major effect on fish populations as the suspended solids block light and disrupt the aquatic food chain.

The fact is that when dams are built, the vast majority of changes are reckoned with only by those who are directly affected. It is these people who know when to fish in the deep pools and when to fish the rapids—both of which will be decimated by those waves of sedimentation. It is they who must anticipate which fields are too risky to plant this year, as those pulsing flows of sand create unpredictable flood patterns. These are only a few of the ecological issues raised, and poor planning, the lack of investment in research, and the inability to address the fundamental problems of dams conspire to create deeply uncertain anthropogenic ecologies for the people who depend on them. Just as the long-term implications of genetically modified organisms or anthropogenic climate change cannot be known from the vantage of the present, these anthropogenic rivers are “materialized as uncertain” (Murphy 2006, 7).

The Role of Activism

When environmental activists began interviewing Lao villagers about riparian changes in the 1990s, it was at a time when hydropower had been severely criticized internationally already for several decades. Nevertheless, developers had been eager to build in Laos because the single party state and the country’s lack of civil society meant these cautionary voices were not part of a broader public debate. International Rivers, one of the transnational environmental advocacy groups that played a major role in Laos, viewed their strategy as documenting the concerns of local people in order to raise those issues in higher profile settings. By targeting specific financial networks and the executive boards of institutions like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), this kind of advocacy makes it much harder for developers and financiers to feign ignorance. I see this as a spatial strategy. Since environmental problems frequently get dealt with by ignoring the people to whom they matter—who after all have no access to decision makers—this kind of advocacy seeks to bypass the ways authoritative expertise and bureaucratic forms of exclusion reinforce each other.

One thing that played to International Rivers’ advantage is that they sought to understand the institutional vulnerabilities of the industry, rather than treating multilateral hydropower development as a monolithic leviathan. They effectively engaged in a kind of institution hacking, in which they sought out the vulnerabilities of a network of relations—financial, expert, reputational—through which large dams get built. By treating dams as contingent achievements rather than inevitabilities, they could insert environmental concerns at multiple points within these relations. They worked hard to show ADB’s board of directors that its own environmental rules had been ignored. They targeted the US State Department representation to gain information and challenge the standing of the project within the ADB. They targeted public sources of finance in Thailand and Scandinavia. By exploiting institutional vulnerabilities, including the importance of reputation, public controversy, and the fact that they simply hadn’t done the required environmental research, the result of this institution hacking was that developers could no long rely on the contingent network of relations that protected the project and made it possible. In this sense, activists also produce uncertainty as an outcome of certain kinds of practices, and they were effective for this reason, not because they produced stable facts that convinced industry insiders of the harms they caused.

So what about the plurality of viewpoints and performative elements of sustainability management? These largely arise as a response to the destabilizing effects of activism, and in the project I studied they performed a diagnosis of the threat of activism, point for point. The company hired a charismatic, affable American who engaged directly with International Rivers, effectively cutting the Asian Development Bank out of the loop. He also completely revamped the company’s image, leveraging the money they were spending on environmental mitigation as part of a public relations effort. And his open personality, willingness to talk with people of diverse viewpoints, and apparent transparency all worked to repair the rancor and blame left over from the activist campaign, which was essential to establishing goodwill with people in government and the development industry. The company was also quite busy working in the villages, and the open-ended management approach there took the form of trial-and-error attempts to repair village livelihoods, ultimately without addressing the dam’s main problems. Network, image and affect were essential to the environmental management approach.

Performative Achievement and the Entrepreneurial Ethos

Business knowledge is focused on the performance of achievements, and the manager’s performative, charismatic style served to embody in his person all the different relations that came to bear on his company. And it was focused on specific outcomes like managing the threat of activism, with little patience for research or consulting expertise and far more willingness to improvise when it came to village livelihood interventions like dry-season rice cropping and experiments with commercial livestock. A singular, authoritative viewpoint, in which the company claimed to know and speak for nature—what Donna Haraway (1988) famously called the god-trick—was a liability.

This achievement-oriented ethos is very different from that of foundational knowledge practices that seek to establish reliable empirical knowledge as the ground for public debate and decision-making. It’s entrepreneurial and opportunistic. It pays close attention to networked relations, and takes advantage of their weaknesses and potentialities. It tracks the many different elements that must come together for a dam to be built and run effectively, and it monitors threats and opportunities, frequently in a personalistic, intuitive way that does not rely on formal risk analysis. At the end of the day, it’s performative in the sense offered by Peter Drucker, widely considered the “father of modern management.” He wrote in 1954, “the ultimate test of management is business performance.” And, “achievement rather than knowledge remains, of necessity, both proof and aim” (1954, 9).

Likewise, activists’ work was most effective when it mimicked this way of thinking about dams as contingent achievements, rather than viewing them as the inevitable outcomes of a system. Of course, their approach went beyond how developers think as well, for it raised questions that dams themselves raise, and insisted that those questions matter.

The distinction I make between “foundational” and “achievement-oriented” knowledge practices is a conceptual distinction, and I don’t pretend that these can always be separated in actual practice. But the fact is that a commitment to rational planning based on foundational knowledge contains within it a particular kind of aporia, namely, it is always possible to know more about the complex social and ecological conditions in which people act. Foundational knowledge tries to be compulsory. It asks, what is required by fact and reason? And it is anxious about those foundations, which is why it constantly performs its own certainty, mastery or control over “objective reality”.

But the people who think of themselves as actors in this grand sense—the people who move around hundreds of millions of dollars and sign powerpurchasing agreements—are impatient to get on with it. Achievement-oriented knowledge—the knowledge of entrepreneurs—is different. It is far more comfortable with uncertainty, insofar as every entrepreneur must have his or her own dreamy, more or less improbable project underway (from the French entreprendre, “undertaking”). This helps explain why business knowledge is not particularly concerned with a scientific understanding of the world, and is willing to gamble on projects that seem unrealistic after the fact (just think of Elon Musk). Achievement-oriented knowledge asks not what action is required, but what do these real relations make possible? It performs not foundations but improbable achievements. And when those projects fail others get to suffer the mess.

From the outside it can easily seem like dams are inevitable. Yet the fact is they are shot through with uncertainty. This uncertainty is produced by specific practices of risk-taking and becomes manifest in the physical landscape in the same way that knowledge becomes part of the built environment. It is not simply an epistemic formation; uncertainty is built into the anthropogenic ecology itself.

We don’t yet know what happened to the dam in southern Laos last week. The New York Times reports that in the days before it collapsed engineers found a sunken depression in the top of the dam, implying that the foundation was eroding. It may have been an issue with the underlying geology, or that the engineers failed to anticipate the intensity of tropical storms that come across the Annamite Mountains from the South China Sea.

Perhaps—especially since there is always a chance their dam will collapse—developers should think harder about foundations.


Drucker, Peter F. 1954. The Practice of Management. New York: HarperCollins.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99.

Murphy, Michelle. 2006. Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty: Environmental Politics, Technoscience, and Women Workers. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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