Dams, “development” and International Law

Two events of significance to freshwater resources in the “Third World” occurred in 1997: one was the setting up of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) by the World Bank in March 1997; the other was the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Convention on Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses in May 1997 (UN-IWC). The first development was the culmination of a sustained critique of large dams by environmental and social justice movements in the “Third” and “First” worlds alike. The second was the culmination of sustained efforts to create an institutional framework for dispute resolution arising from water projects and to resolve interstate conflicts over freshwater in the wake of concerns about “water wars” and security. Both events were about development, yet the discourses around the two events ran parallel without convergence or contestation, intra-discourse. This paper argues that the insular yet related discourses on dams, development, water conflicts and international law render opaque a political programme for restructuring the international regime for freshwater resources along neo-liberal principles. The opacity is sustained by disciplinary exclusions, especially the mutual exclusion of critical and sociological legal theory in the critique of development and critical development theory in discourses on international law.