Week 9: Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development

This week’s readings were focused on the book Dams, Displacement and the Delusion of Development written by Allen and Barbara Isaacman which look into the histories and struggles that accompanied the building of Cahora Bassa in Mozambique. Chapter 3, Harnessing the River, takes a deeper look into the promises, plans and issues that all come into conversation regarding the building of the dam. This plan was brought forward by Portuguese colonial powers that envisioned a transformation into modernization and development of the Zambezi River Valley. Boundless, cheap energy sources, no more flooding, and a source of hydroelectric power to stimulate agriculture and industrial production were promised as a result of the Cahora Bassa dam. On top of these, they predicted development of the local communities infrastructure, commerce and income. However, there were skeptics from the beginning who questioned whether or not the dam was economically possible without placing too large of an economic burden on the nation, as well as whether or not they would be able to compete within the world market. The dam’s success was later seen as a solely hydroelectric scheme lacking necessary attention on the consequences of its construction on the community and environment.

Although narratives around the construction of the dam were positive and in favor of local and economic development, it was very saddening to learn of the inhumane and discriminatory ways that African workers were treated in the work environment from higher authorities. The work was grueling and beyond physically demanding, and since European’s held all titles of authority African workers and the local community were victims of daily abuse. They worked longer, harder and for lesser wage than European workers who were previously working on the project. As stated in the text “brutality, humiliation, and a culture of terror were intrinsic to the system of domination” (Isaacman & Isaacman, 2013, 82). There were also, far too often, instances of ‘industrial accidents’ that were greatly overlooked and likely the intention of Zamco and Portuguese colonial officials. These events led to the focus of the next chapter, Displaced People. In chapter 4, colonial powers attempted to civilize the society through their displacement promising “a social transformation and elevation in the quality of their lives” (Isaacman & Isaacman, 2013, 95). This was contradicted in their actions as intimidation and violence were used to overcome defiance.

The attention received by the lower part of the dam, which exceeds that of the issue of displacement as well as development are highlighted in chapter 5. As mentioned previously in the book, environmental and ecological consequences were of very little concern to the Portuguese officials and colonial powers constructing the same. They more so saw it as a powerful economic force to be utilized while skeptics felt pressured to succumb to authorities demands. There are diminishing ecosystems and flooding was a major problem behind the reservoir, drowning crops, animals and the livelihoods of many people. The dam resulted in climate change as well as differentiation in precipitation levels destroying potential for many agricultural opportunities. It can be seen that this dam project affected the livelihoods of many individuals who were previously content and well off in their communities before they were convinced, and forced, otherwise.

Do you think it is right to continue on with the project with the obvious predicted consequences that have occurred so far? If there were more evidence on the social and ecological impacts of Cahora Bassa affecting the colonial powers, would they be as eager to control and have lasting involvement within Mozambique?

How can local populations gain capacity to resist against colonial powers in order to mutually benefit from economic development as well as ensuring compensation for their losses? Does this seem possible based on what we have read?


Isaacman, A. F., & Isaacman, B. S. (2013). Dams, Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007. Ohio University Press.


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