In the 1990s, the global hydropower industry – in particular the industry of Northern countries – was facing a growing crisis of legitimacy. Opponents of large dams grew in numbers and became increasingly vocal, claiming that development benefits were exaggerated. This cumulated in the publication of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) report in 2000, which affirmed many of the opponents’ criticisms. In this context, the World Bank, seeking a means to once again finance large hydropower, put forward the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) hydropower project as a new, best-practice approach. Meanwhile, the International Hydropower Association (IHA) sought to counter the WCD with its own sustainability guidelines in 2004 and subsequently a Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol (HSAP) launched in 2011. From this significant and combined effort of large am proponents emerged the policy discourse of “sustainable hydropower,” the purpose of which was to re-legitimize the industry.
This chapter deconstructs how NT2 has been discursively produced as a “brand” and woven in to the “sustainable hydropower” discourse. The chapter argues that in public the World Bank and the hydropower industry have regularly drawn on the NT2 as a model to legitimize their claim that “sustainable hydropower” can exist. Needless to say, this claim is fiercely disputed. Indeed, behind closed doors amongst the project’s proponents and in specialist hydropower industry conferences, more provisos and nuances are considered that bracket the public claims of success. The chapter also addresses how NT2 has been represented in regional and global debates on “sustainable hydropower,” for example in relation to the Hydropower Sustainabilty Assessment Protocol led by the International Hydropower Association.
Please contact Dr. Carl Middleton for more information.
Citation: Middleton, C. (2018) "Chapter 13: Branding Dams: Nam Theun 2 and its Role in Producing the Discourse of 'Sustainable Hydropower'" (pp 271-292) in Shoemaker, B. and Robichaud, W. (eds.) Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank's Model Hydropower Project in Laos. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison.