Geography Reference
In-Depth Information
ter quality and availability, and on interregional or even international relations. Sustainable
solutions will be found at the nexus of many fields of disciplinary practice.
Along with a group of American and Chinese colleagues, I spent more than five years
working on a decision-support tool called the Integrative Dam Assessment Model (IDAM),
with funding from the Human and Social Dynamics Research Program at the U.S. National
Science Foundation. 5 This work represents one attempt among many ongoing efforts—by
governmental agencies, NGOs, scientists, and hydropower industry groups—to improve
the transparency of decision making regarding dams. 6 When we first began discussing the
possibility of collaboration, our research group realized that, despite our common interests,
naturalscientists andsocialscientists tendtolookatourrespective objectsofstudythrough
our own microscopes; we use our narrow disciplinary training to study the effects of dam
construction with fine-grained resolution, while sometimes missing the bigger picture. An
ecologist, for example, may focus primarily on biodiversity or threatened species, but an
anthropologist's main concern may be for displaced or otherwise vulnerable communities.
Yet dams lie at the intersection of ecological and social systems, which means that an ef-
fect in one area is likely to have repercussions in others. For example, the adverse effects
of dams on ecosystems, hydrology, and water quality (Poff and Hart 2002) often disrupt
cultural conditions andeconomic institutions (Cernea 2003)andchange the geopolitical re-
lationships between communities, regions, or nations (Wolf, Yoffe, and Giordano 2003).
Asaresult,theimpacts ofdams—whether positive ornegative—are notreadily captured
through the analytical lens of any single discipline. The research group to which I be-
longed—which included geographers, engineers, economists, hydrologists, and anthropo-
logists—worked toward a comprehensive, systems-based approach built on both historic
and contemporary data. One early inspiration for the research group was the WCD's Seven
Strategic Priorities, particularly the call for “comprehensive options assessment.” We fo-
cused our energies on supporting more informed and transparent decision-making pro-
cesses related to dam development by creating a computer model that could help decision
makers understand and visualize how a given dam project would affect human communit-
ies and ecosystems.
A model is a simplified representation of reality, a rubric for rendering complex inform-
ation in such a way that it can be more easily understood and acted upon. Model building is
therefore necessarily a reductionist undertaking. Even a map, itself a kind a model, must be
scaled down to fit into its user's pocket; a map with a 1:1 scale might be highly accurate,
butitwouldn'tbeterriblypractical. Thestatistician GeorgeBox,reflectingonthedifficulty
ofreducing a complex social reality to a practical model, once said, “All models are wrong;
some models are useful.” It is in this spirit of critical appraisal that I wish to discuss some
of the key obstacles our research team faced during the modeling effort, how we sought
to overcome them, and what some of the implications for decision making might be. 7 In
the process, I would like to elucidate how “epistemological pluralism” played out in this
Search WWH ::

Custom Search