Reconfiguring scale and power: the Khong-Chi-Mun project in northeast Thailand

Environment and Planning A 2003, volume 35, pages 2229 ^ 2250


Reconfiguring scale and power: the Khong-Chi-Mun project
in northeast Thailand

Chris Sneddon
Department of Geography/Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College, 6107 Fairchild,
Hanover, NH 03755-6017, USA; e-mail: Christopher.S.Sneddon@Dartmouth.Edu
Received 18 November 2002; in revised form 20 May 2003

Abstract. This paper uses the case of the Khong-Chi-Mun (KCM) interbasin transfer project in
northeast Thailand to explore questions of power and scale in the context of state intervention
in river basins. The KCM project figures strongly in the Thai state's long-term aim of transforming
its water-poor northeast region through large-scale irrigation works and agroindustrial development.
The project has also become a key element in interstate negotiations over coordinated development of
the Lower Mekong Basin. The early stages of the project have met with resistance in the form of both
national and local Thai social movements arguing against it on social justice and ecological grounds.
Proponents of the project in the Thai government are employing different scalar narratives to justify
and legitimate implementation of the scheme. Scale and power are intimately related within complex
environmental conflicts, and tracing their linkages through an array of actors and across a variety of
scales, the approach associated with actor-network methodologies, can reveal a great deal about how
power and scale are co-created.

1 Power, scale, and environmental conflicts
At a seminar held on 11 April 1997, the then Prime Minister of Thailand Chavalit
Yongchaiyudh declared his full support for the Khong-Chi-Mun (KCM) scheme (its
name reflects the conjoining of the Mekong, Chi and Mun river systems through canals
and weirs), opining that the project was the only way to ensure sufficient supplies of
water for the long-suffering farmers of the northeast.(1) The seminar, held at the
regional `growth pole' of Khon Kaen's deluxe five-star hotel, was stuffed with project
supporters, consisting largely of phuu yai baan (village heads) and kamnan (district
chiefs) from throughout the northeast with strong propensities towards favoring the
project. The KCM project, promised Chavalit, would fulfill the long-held dream of
Thai politicians and development planners to `turn the northeast green'. The loose
coalition of community groups, Thai and international environmental nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), and academics voicing concerns about the project's social and
ecological ramificationsöa coalition decidedly not invited to the seminaröwere,
according to project advocates, misinformed at best, or working for anti-Thai `dark
forces' at worst. The seminar itself felt more like a political rally than anything else,
with indigenous Isaan (northeast Thailand) music providing the background to carefully
orchestrated video presentations of the unequivocal benefits that water from the Mekong
would bring to arid northeast soils. By the late 1990s the KCM project had enrolled the
highest office of the Thai government, the heads of the relevant development agencies
appointed by the prime minister, as well as the countless local officials who whole-
heartedly gave their allegiance to the project. It had also enrolled and reconfigured
nonhuman entities, including an array of landscapes, watercourses, aquatic ecosystems,
irrigation canals, and weirs extending throughout northeast Thailand, in significant ways.
(1) The central socioecological problem for a majority of northeast Thailand's human residents

revolves around ``Low and erratic rainfall, nutrient-poor soils with low moisture-retention capability,
and restricted availability of surface water supplies'' combined with ``remoteness from markets,
cultural isolation, poor communications, and general insecurity'' (Rambo, 1991, page 13).
2230                                                                              C Sneddon

A careful reading of these enrollments and reconfigurations can, I argue, open up distinct
methods for exploring how the politics of scale in the context of intractable environmental
conflicts are crucially dependent on the manner in which human ^ nonhuman networks
compose and promulgate power effects.
    The concept of geographical (or spatial) scale is inundated with a diversity of
interpretations and confusions. The assorted words typically connoted as spatial scale
(for example, local, regional, national, global) are understood simultaneously as narra-
tive strategies, as sites of multiple political struggles, and as crucial variables in the
working and reworking of economic and political processes. A recent and expanding set
of debates within human geography has raised questions about scale's epistemological
and methodological standing, and in which directions revamped theoretical projects
concerning the `politics' and `production' of scale should proceed (Brenner, 2001;
Marston, 2000; Marston and Smith, 2001). Despite these strides, there is still ample
evidence for seconding Howitt's (2002, page 299) assessment: ``Scale remains poorly
understood, carelessly applied and surprisingly chaotic.'' Scale denotes everyday under-
standings that tend to gloss over the multiplicity of ways in which terms like `local',
`regional', and `global' are discussed and applied. This applies to environmental politics as
well, where both academic work and actual practice tend to `fix' environmental conflicts
at particular geographical scales to the neglect of how broader, less scale-dependent
strategies might open up innovative paths of analysis and resistance.
    Like scale, the notion of power carries with it odd and confusing baggage, and
nowhere is this better displayed than in its current deployments within environmental
politics. Power, depending on one's perspective, is something that states hold by virtue
of their prerogative to commit violence in the name of development; that corporations
exercise on a global scale; and that social movements need to generate in order to have
any chance at successfully opposing the dominating tendencies of these same states
and corporations. In academic spheres, power is the source of multiple fault lines,
bringing to the table political theorists, sociologists of knowledge, and social scientists
of several stripes. And yet, it perhaps remains ``The scandal of social science _ that it
has so far failed to arrive at a satisfactory understanding of power'' (Ball, 1992,
page 14). Such an oversight is particularly egregious given the likelihood that ``Any
attempt to account for human reality seems to call for an understanding of the nature
of power'' (Tuan, 1984, page 1). And such an understanding is crucial to those political
actors seeking to rearrange power relationships in the service of, for example,
enhanced ecological integrity and sustainable livelihoods.
    In this paper I seek to identify linkages between the two obstinate concepts of scale
and power through an empirical account of the KCM interbasin transfer project, an
ongoing attempt to reconfigure a considerable portion of the Mekong River basin and in
so doing radically transform the ways in which several million human beings of the basin
intermingle their livelihoods with `natural' phenomena. I argue the case that the KCM
project makes necessary, or at least lends itself to, a parallel reconfiguration of how we
think about notions such as power and scale, ideas that have until quite recently enjoyed
a sort of commonsensical credenceöif not among social scientists then certainly among
policymakers and assorted political actorsöthat seriously underestimates their com-
plexity. An additional aim is to make a modest contribution to a nascent literature on
water ^ society relations (see Sneddon et al, 2002) that takes account of the complex sets
of discourses and practices, which define these relations in specific times and places. As
Swyngedouw (1997a, page 312) notes, ``the circulation of water is embedded in social
power relations''. The manipulation of water through large-scale interbasin transfer
projects brings to light not only the linkages between water and circuits of state power,
but also how the economic and political processes that reconfigure river basinsöboth
Reconfiguring scale and power                                                             2231

on the drawing board and in the irrigation trenchesöconstantly rework the politics of
scale through the extension and contraction of networks of humans and nonhumans.
    Conceptually, I hope to accomplish three things: to get the ball rolling, however
slowly, on the difficult question of how actor-network approaches and affiliated method-
ologies use power and scale to explore dense technoscientific and environmental
controversies; to apply these insights in a way that initiates a conversation between
power and scale in the context of water conflicts and the transformation of river
basins; and to tease out the ways in which all this might matter to analyses and
political stances directed towards water ^ society relations. Part of my goal is to ask
what is the usefulness of actor-network approaches when the networks themselves are
maddeningly complex and lousy with intersections among multiple networks? The
applicability of an actor-network approach is arguably clearer when an environmental
conflictöif the focus of the work does indeed fall within this rubricöis delimited by
fairly specific sets of human and nonhuman agents as in Callon's (1986) seminal
account of aquatic biologists, shellfish traps, fisherfolk, and scallops; yet what are we
to do when the technologies and nonhuman entities themselves extend massive dis-
tances in time (since their development) and space (spanning political territories)?
When resource users and their associated diversity of identities and collectivities number
in the millions? When the nonhuman entities include water and a host of aquatic
organisms whose own associations (that is, their physical, biological, and ecological
dynamics) are poorly understood and ill defined? And what happens when actor net-
works contract, leading to the development of different `nodes' of environmental conflict?
In the spirit of Callon's (1986) work, my aim is to allow the particular actor-network, and
particular analytical framework, to emerge from the case at hand.
    I proceed to explore the hoary concepts of power and scale, respectively, in the
following two sections, drawing primarily from actor-network `approaches' öLatour
(1999) suggests that the `theory' label is no longer adequate öbut also attending to
emerging insights from other disciplinary sites, such as recent human-geographical
work on the social/political construction of scale. Accounts of a politics of scale, I
contend, must incorporate an incisive understanding of power. Next comes an account
of the Thai state's on-going program to implement fully what is in effect a five-decade
project involving a massive transfer of water. This section also addresses the case's
methodological groundings in an actor-network approach. The conclusion returns to
what the case of the KCM project, interpreted through novel conceptions of scale and
power, might reveal about the need to reconfigure such concepts, and the implications
of actor-network approaches for analytical and political projects aimed at improving
human ^ environment interrelations.

2 Power as composition and effect
This is not the place for an all-inclusive treatise on the concept of power. The past
fifteen years are evidence that such tacks are well underway, and are diverse and
deepening in their ability to uncover more nuanced perspectives on power (see Clegg,
1989; Hindess, 1996; Law, 1986; 1991; Sharp et al 2000a; Wartenberg, 1992). Several
recent treatises on power by human geographers underscore widening concern with
this unwieldy concept (Agnew 1999; Allen, 1999; Radcliffe, 1999). There is growing
awareness that one simple word can hardly capture the diversity of what `power',
`power relations', and `power effects' imply. For example, Ball (1992) notes three paths
through which notions of power have evolved: communicative (the ability to persuade);
realist notions of power (where individual's power can be read off of their social identities);
2232                                                                                          C Sneddon

and a deconstructionist understanding of power indebted to Foucault.(2) Also following
Foucault's writings, Sharp et al (2000b) distinguish among forces, practices, pro-
cesses, and relations of power, all of which open up fruitful lines of investigation.
Within geography and associated disciplines, authors have explicated the workings of
power within the context of theories of resistance and resistance politics (Rose, 2002),
state theory, and `regionalism' (Jones, 2001), the intersections between radical eco-
nomic geography and postmodern thought (Lee, 2000), and theories of geopolitical
relations and democracy (Slater, 1997; 2002).
     Although no shortage of reflections on power and its multiple forms is evident,
there remains a strange silence in a majority of this literature. Questions of ecology and
the naturalöor the nonhumanöare infrequently broached, if at all. In an otherwise
comprehensive and insightful examination of the multiple characteristics of power as
action/discourse, Sharp et al (2000b) apparently have little to say about the additional
entanglements created when `nature' and `environment' are thrown into the mix. Even
the early actor-network texts (for example, Law, 1986; 1991) are overwhelmingly concerned
with dissolving the divisions between social and technological realms rather than with
addressing nonhumans beyond human-constructed artifacts. A similar critique can be
leveled at Foucault, who demonstrates little interest in the nonhuman sphere beyond the
technological and `socially produced'. However, recent efforts to recover an `ecological'
Foucault (Darier, 1999) and to examine the ecological implications of governmentality
(Luke, 1995; 1999) highlight the need to insert a nonhuman perspective into his seminal
accounts of power and society.
     I contend that it is possible for an actor-network approach to include more complex
ecological entities in its accounts of power relations and power effects, and that such a
course, while certainly pointing out some of the inherent difficulties of actor-network
methodologies, provides a useful frame for interpreting environmental conflicts involv-
ing multiple actors linked to multiple scales of interaction. Building on the work of
Latour, recent applications of the actor-network frame in human geography have
initiated precisely this sort of conversation. For Latour (1986), the key to understand-
ing power relationships is that an `act' of power is far more contingent on the `actions
of others' than on the individual or group who is typically seen as `having' power.
Building on Latour, Murdoch and Marsden (1995, page 372) aver that
   ``Power is a `composition' made by many people but attributed to one of them. The
     amount of power exercised is not related to how much someone `has' but to the number
     of actors involved in its composition. So power is an outcome of collective action.
     Therefore, to `explain' power (and trace power geometry) we need to examine how
     collective action comes about, or how actors become associated, and how they work
     in unison'' (emphasis in original).
Power is associational, but it is not enough simply to describe the evolution of
collective action. As Law (1991, page 18) reflects, for power to materialize, the question
of maintaining certain relations must also be addressed:

(2) Although the challenging world of Foucauldian accounts of power is beyond the scope of this

work, his writings stress the temporally contingent character of what we call `power' and the need
to carry out detailed historical investigations of the pathways through which power operates and
diffuses. As a result, Foucault's metaphors of power, domination, and resistance (for example,
`biopower', `pastoral power', `panopticon', `discipline', `capillaries') are diverse and are tightly linked
to specific historical, geographical and institutional developments in the ongoing interplay among
governments, cultures, economies, and technologies. See Hindess (1996, pages 96 ^ 136) for a useful
Reconfiguring scale and power                                                              2233

   ``No one, no thing, no class, no gender can `have power' unless a set of relations is
     constituted and held in place: a set of relations that distinguishes between this and
     that (distribution), and then goes on to regulate the relations between this and that.''
     How might such a conceptualization of power be applied to the case of complex
water manipulations in the Mekong basin and northeast Thailand? I suggest that the
KCM interbasin transfer project can be analyzed as both an association of human and
nonhuman agents (`actants' in Latour's vocabulary) and that it can also be read as a
`power effect', a set of relations that must be maintained in order for a set of dominant
actors (in this case certain Thai state agencies) to achieve their ends. Perhaps more
than anything, the central power effect of the KCM project, or KCM `collective' as I
will later call it, is the enrollment of a massive river basin (the Mekong) into its orbit of
influence.(3) But in order to see this enrollment taking shape, it is crucial to examine
the historical antecedents of the KCM and the manner in which the envisioning of the
KCM project evolved over time. To accomplish this, however, it is first necessary to
clarify how scale might be considered within an actor-network frame.

3 The symmetrical construction of scale
As Eden et al (2000) describe in a recent article, nature and society are given distinct
ontological status through a process that Latour (1993) describes as purification.
Latour and other proponents of actor-network methodologies instead advocate the
metaphor of translation, which connotes a blending and hybridization of the human
and nonhuman. Such investigations are deemed symmetrical because it is possible to
``trace how differences [between human and nonhuman actors] are produced through
translation without categorical prejudice nor a priori causal power'' (Eden et al, 2000,
page 268). There is thus nothing inherent to the categories human and nonhuman that
keeps them separate, but by tracing the relations of actors enmeshed in a network, one
can begin to tease out how differences are created, maintained, and reformulated. This
is the essence of symmetrical investigation. Yet how might we symmetrically approach
questions of scale?
     One way forward may be to examine the ways in which scale as an object of study
is approached, first, by those concerned with ecologically constructed scales (for
example, ecological scientists) and, second, by those concerned with socially produced
scales (for example, human geographers of various persuasions). One important way in
which debates over scale are dissimilar from debates over power is the attention
directed to the first concept by ecological scientists. Whether focused on ecological
systems, populations, river systems, or landscapes, ecologists are increasingly sensitive
to the conceptual difference between scale (as a measurable physical quantity) and level
(the category of a thing) (Allen, 1998). Social scientists may not necessarily be as aware
of such semantic differences, in part because they are more concerned with how certain
`commonsense' scales (for example, the region, the nation) are socially (and politically)
produced and become part of the discursive strategies of social actors (Cox, 1997;
Jones, 1997; Smith, 1996; Swyngedouw, 1997b; 2000).
     Recognition that scale is socially constructed represents a welcome and insightful
intervention into previous accounts of spatial scale. In particular, work on the political
construction of scale (see Delaney and Leitner, 1997) has illuminated the processes
through which `scalar narratives' (Swyngedouw, 1997b, page 140) are continuously
employed by a range of human actors to assert their positions and, in effect, their
representations of means and ends. In a similar vein, talking in terms of the `local' or

  For similar claims regarding the applicability of actor-network analyses to rivers and aquatic
environments, see Burgess et al (2000), Eden et al (2000), and Kortelainen (1999).
2234                                                                              C Sneddon

`global' should be understood as a political strategy, as a way of representing the goals
and desires of different actors. Scale in this sense is a frame of understanding. When we
say `local' or `regional', there is a common understanding (usually) among those to
whom these labels are directed. Scale used in this way is also an expression of power
and knowledge, and can cut multiple ways. Individuals and collectivities, through
political struggles, discourses, and other diverse practices, produce a variety of `scales'
(for example, community) that in turn become strongly associated with those specific
processes and social relations that led to their production. In short, scale is an
epistemological entity rather than an ontological one (Jones, 1997).
     Despite these advances in our understanding of socially produced scales, human
geographers have given insufficient attention to ecological accounts of scale (emanating
from the accounts of ecological scientists' concerns with, for example, hierarchy theory,
or landscape ecology) and to the participation of nonhumans in the construction of
social scales. Spatial scales are also produced through ecological means, and never
solely through social processes and discourses. Ecologist Pohl-Wostl (1998) describes
this `ecological construction' of scales in terms of the ``spatiotemporal organization of
ecological networks'', noting that the multiple dynamic processes apparent in ecosys-
tems ``continuously generate and relax tension on a continuum of scales'' (page 147).
One way of interpreting this argument is to perceive the spatiotemporal scales of interest to
ecologists (for example, communities, ecosystems) as comprised of ecological collectivities
demonstrating more or less coherence depending on the type of ecological dynamics (for
example, climatic events, predator ^ prey relationships, fluvial changes) under considera-
tion in a specific study. This conception also underscores the importance of ecological
networks, which can be seen as defining, in some respects, associated spatiotemporal
scales that are labeled as `landscapes', `ecosystems', or other collective entities.
     Returning for the moment to recent geographical work, an emerging actor network
perspective on spatial scale, and its connections to power, clarifies a revamped notion
of scale that moves closer to the aforementioned goal of symmetry. Within this
   ``the key question becomes not that of scale, encoded in a categorical distinction
     between the `local' and the `global', but of connectivity, marking lines of flow of
     varying lengths and which transgress these categories _ the size, or scale, of an
     actor-network is a product of network lengthening, not of some special properties
     peculiar to `global' or `core' actors _ . Furthermore, the power associated with
     global reach has to be understood as a social composite of the actions and
     competences of many actants; an attribute not of a single person or organisation
     but of the number of actants involved in its composition'' (Whatmore and Thorne,
     1997, pages 289 ^ 291).
In addition, it may no longer be possible to speak of `global' or `environmental'
contexts, because ``contexts too flow locally through networks'' (Latour, 1999, page 18).
This opens up a path for political ecologists concerned with `contextualizing' localized
case studies of environmental conflict by stressing that contexts are simultaneously
`local' and `global' depending on their location within networks of actors and processes.
So, if we are concerned about scale, and scale is more definitively about network
lengthening (and, it should be noted, additional capacity to produce power effects),
how is such lengthening achieved? It in fact
   ``requires the mobilisation of larger numbers and more intricately interwoven con-
     stituents, or mediators, to sustain a web of connections over greater distances. In so
     doing, it focuses analytical attention on describing this process of mediation and its
     agents in ways which force a challenging, and sometimes disconcerting, shift in the
     horizons of social research'' (Whatmore and Thorne, 1997, page 291).
Reconfiguring scale and power                                                           2235

    Ecological scientists have also struggled with epistemological concerns over scale. The
dilemma of so-called scale effects, or how changing the resolution of one's analytical lens
can lead to significantly different questions and results, is a pertinent example. As Levin
(1992, page 1945) astutely notes, ``when we observe the environment, we necessarily do so
only on a limited range of scales; therefore, our perception of events provides us with only
a low-dimensional slice through a high-dimensional cake.'' For ecologists, ``scale becomes
meaningful with regard to things only when it is operationalized in its use in a measure in
the act of observation'' and is thus ``tied _ tightly to the act of observing'' (Allen, 1998,
page 37). Thus, in discussions of the ecological character of scale, researchers tend to
recognize the notion's contingencies and the crucial role of the observer, who defines the
spatial (and temporal) scale at which his or her research will be cast. This is a critical
moment in shaping how scale is eventually understood within ecological research. A
similar moment occurs within actor-network methodologies when analysts must cleave
off the `ends' of networks, or decide in the first instance which particular network to
follow and why.
    To reiterate, conversations between theorists of ecologically constructed scales and
those produced through social relations have scarcely begun. This continuing demarca-
tion of ecological and social versions of scale inhibits more incisive and politically
salient investigations of environmental conflicts. For example, ecological accounts of
scale run into trouble when they provide the rationale for constructing management
activities around scales with measurable material qualities, such as a river basin, with-
out giving due attention to the political and economic construction of scales that
almost never reflect the physical scale of the entity in question. Conversely, work on
the dynamics of socially defined and mediated scales too often overlooks the important
ways in which ecological networks actively create and influence an assortment of scalar
entities. An actor-network approach might assist in resolving such divergences by
insisting that the social and ecological construction of scale be examined symmetri-
cally and with rigorous attention to the lengthening (and contracting) networks that
allow us to talk about different `scales' in the first place. For instance, what does it
mean to distinguish basins, landscapes, communities, populations, and patches within
ecology? Essentially, these categories reflect an ecological `lengthening' of networks
that incorporates more and more dynamic ecological entities (actors) as we move from
the individual to the ecosystem and so on. My goal is not too far removed from Amin's
(2002, page 386) talk of a ``different insight _ to scalar thinking'' that ``emphasises a
topology marked by overlapping near-far relations and organizational connections that
are not reducible to scalar spaces''. I do not think we want to give up altogether on the
`scalar language' and the metaphors that permeate our analyses and political projects,
but rather advocate more careful thinking about what actually constitutes different
`scales' as used in the narratives of environmental conflicts.

4 The Khong-Chi-Mun `network': the state, extensions, and involutions
What follows is an empirical tale of the KCM project. This tale is not the one usually
told by proponents and opponents of the project, wherein the KCM is frequently
reduced to `savior of the northeast' for its ostensible promise of water to an arid
landscape, or to `yet another water development debacle' for its equally probable
capacity to provoke a host of socioecological problems and associated social conflicts.
For all the controversy the project has fomented over the past decade, advocates and
oppositional voices have both been remarkably ahistorical in their respective interpreta-
tions. I thus want to focus on the somewhat laborious process through which the KCM
project was conceived, argued over, and, haltingly, implemented over the past four
decades or so. As with other networks, or collectives (see Callon and Law, 1995),
2236                                                                              C Sneddon

the KCM project ``traces its own particular space ^ time which reflects both the variety of
materials used in construction and the relations established between the combined
elements'' (Murdoch, 1998, page 361). Before turning to this historical trajectory, however,
I want to highlight several important aspects of the case presented here: the degree to
which the KCM actor-network, or collective, is a manifestation of state power; how the
KCM project intersects with recent thinking on the reworking of scale; the basic
methodological contours of an actor-network approach; and the need to historicize
environmental conflicts.
     Despite an efflorescence of recent writing on forms of power circulating beyond and
through the state, I do not want to give up completely on the importance of state agents in
the exercise of power (see Poulantzas, 1980) and the reformulation of scale. Such a project
may entail a cautious blend of ideas from political economy and governmentality [see Lee
(2000) for a step in this direction]. Contrary to some recent currents, I contend that
Marxist political economy has never seen power relations solely in terms of the state's
exercise of power. However, even those fields of power that may be regarded as beyond the
reaches of the state are, at least in the modern era, being brought more intimately into
the ambit of state operations. As Poulantzas (1980, page 37) argues:
   ``Intervening more and more in every sphere of social reality, dissolving thereby the
     traditionally `private' texture, the State spreads out into the tiniest vein and _ tends
     to circumscribe power sectors and every class power.''
     Accordingly, I place a great deal of emphasis on the state and its various agencies
invested with the ability to build dams and irrigation structures and otherwise directly
alter the flow of rivers, as in the case of KCM. An important expression of state power
in this case is the manner in which the scheme proposes to enroll nonhumans. In its
current incarnation, the interbasin transfer project aims to promote irrigated agricul-
ture throughout northeast Thailand on an unprecedented scale by withdrawing water
from the main channel of the Mekong River about 20 km upstream from Nong Khai
(on the Thai ^ Lao border near the Lao PDR capital of Vientiane) and diverting it
through a series of dams, weirs, canals, and pumps towards significant parts of the Chi
and Mun river basins (Kamol, 1995; Nippon Koei Co Ltd, 1993), which form the
hydrological axes of the northeast region (see figure 1).
     Once diverted, the water will ostensibly be used to irrigate up to 4.9 million rai
(780 000 ha) of farmland (Sombat, 1993), thus providing access to water in the dry season
for rice farming and stimulating agroindustrial development, focused on exportable
vegetables, throughout the region. In short, it is an attempt by the national state to
reconfigure a region that encompasses, on one hand, a complex set of river basins and
ecological networks, and on the other hand, a set of political ^ economic jurisdictions
ranging from local villages to a transnational basin shared by nation-states.
     In this instance, it is possible to interpret the activities of the Thai state in produc-
ing and reshaping geographical scale via the KCM project as akin to how states act in
economic realms. Jones (2001, page 1204), for example, links state power to ``an ability
to reconfigure scale by reorganising state internal organisational structures and insti-
tutions spatially, and adjusting corresponding territorial remits'' (emphasis in original).
Seen in this light, regional development policies öfor example, the KCM scheme ö
offer a scalar means of sidestepping contemporary crises in the broad trajectory of
capitalist economic development. At another level, Jessop (2000, pages 343 ^ 344)
theorizes a ``relativization of scale'' whereby ``economic and political forces'' occurring
within the dynamics of the global economy, ceaselessly searching for development
advantages through ``economic and political projects oriented to different scales'',
have contributed to the perceived need for state-driven ``economic coordination and/or
regulation'' at scales such as the supranational and regional levels. Insofar as the same
Reconfiguring scale and power                                                                   2237





                                             Nam Mun


                                                 0     50   100 km
                      Proposed irrigation areas

                      Existing reservoir

                      Transfer canal route

Figure 1. Proposed interbasin canals of the Khong-Chi-Mun project, northeast Thailand.

political and economic forces described by Jones and Jessop are actively enrolling
ecological entities (as `resources' or `natural capital') into their developmental projects,
there is little hindrance to applying a similar lens to the reconfiguring of the ecological
networks constituting the ecosystem scale. Indeed, as an increasing number of water
resource development projects have transformed the rivers of northeast Thailand (see
Sneddon, 2000), it becomes apparent that the reworking of scale in this fashion has
been profound.
    At a methodological level, Callon's (1986) early statement on actor-networks is
instructive for unraveling the complex ways in which states exercise power and
rework scales. At the heart of Callon's methodology are notions such as transla-
tion ö involving several phasesö defined as a process ``during which the identity of
actors, the possibility of interaction and the margins of manoeuvre are negotiated
and delimited'' (page 203).(4) Callon's notion of enrollment (one of the phases of
(4)Translation involves four equally important steps or phases termed: problematization (how
actors' identities relevant to the particular problem are established and fixed); interessement
(how one particular entity, for example, scientists, attempts to define the roles of all other actors
using technologies, texts, discourses, etc); enrollment (whereby actors come to accept the roles
assigned to them); and mobilization (how researchers, in Callon's case, come to gain the capacity
to speak for others in a legitimating voice) (Callon, 1986).
2238                                                                               C Sneddon

translation) ö as employed by, for example, Burgess et al (2000, page 123): ``Actors
become powerful through their abilities to enroll others in a network and extend their
network over greater distances'' ö is particularly helpful in unraveling the KCM
project's evolution into an actor-network that actively recruits and enrolls social
and natural entities. Prominent among these entities are a variety of Thai state
agencies (in particular the Department of Energy Development and Promotion), the
water and associated aquatic organisms of the Mekong, Chi, and Mun river basins,
the myriad farmers and fisherfolk whose livelihoods remain tightly linked to water
cycles, the institutional apparatuses associated with economic development of the
Lower Mekong Basin (including, prominently, the intergovernmental Mekong River
Commission, or Mekong Committee prior to 1995), and an emerging coalition of
community organizations and NGOs within Thailand.
    Finally, the precise ways in which the actors have both contributed to and become
enrolled in the KCM network is historically contingent, and this contingency is too
often neglected in similar accounts of environmental conflict. I here draw on Murdoch's
(1998, pages 362 ^ 364) important differentiation between actor-networks that encom-
pass or comprise ``spaces of prescription'' (more fully formed networks seeking to act
in their own interests) and ``spaces of negotiation'' (less rigid, more fluid networks in
which actors are being jettisoned and enrolled). The KCM project clearly reflects the
latter. Given this distinction, the contemporary discourses and activities of the Thai
state over `regional development' and `water for the northeast' that envelop the KCM
project are the direct material and ideological descendants of the discourses and
activities surrounding the Thai state's participation in the Mekong Project, a far more
ambitious scheme to control and manage the entire Mekong River. This history
explicates the extension of the KCM actor-network, or collective, under the auspices
of Thai state officials, who used an adept blend of arguments concerning water
resource development in general and the need for international cooperation in trans-
boundary river governance in particular to gather other actors under their banner. This
stratagem of the Thai state has had mixed results, because it eventually led to a series of
involutions, or contractions, of the KCM network whereby crucial individual projects
associated with KCM have themselves become controversial hybrid entities. A historical
perspective also demonstrates the manner in which temporal concerns figure promi-
nently in the politics of scale, a point often overlooked in geographical debates on the
4.1 Extensions
An embryonic form of the KCM project was intimately bound up in mid-20th-century
plans enfold the Lower Mekong Basin within the developmental aims of its four
riparian states (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam) [see Sneddon and Nguyen
(2001) for portions of this history]. A 1956 reconnaissance report undertaken by
engineers of the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), and commissioned by the United
Nations' Economic Committee for Asia and the Far East as prelude to formation of the
intergovernmental Mekong Committee in 1957, concluded that:
   ``Of all the four countries situated in the lower basin of the Mekong, Thailand is the
     one that has the most urgent need for the development of irrigation in its north-
     eastern region ... . If large-scale cultivation of crops requiring a significant quantity
     of water is contemplated ... the only way of assuring such supply will be to tap the
     flow from the Mekong'' (USBR, 1956, page 2.24).
For those individuals and agencies within the Thai state concerned with water resource
development, the early activities of the Mekong Projectöas development planners and
boosters dubbed the grandiose schemes to dam the river for hydropower, irrigation,
Reconfiguring scale and power                                                         2239

and flood controlöwere contingent on using the river's water to irrigate large swathes
of territory in the northeast of the country. The Mekong collective during this period
consisted primarily of planners within a variety of the resource development agencies of
the riparian nations (exclusive of Chinese and Burmese officials), a cadre of professional
hydrologists, geologists, and engineers commissioned to investigate the basin's devel-
opment potential (many affiliated with the USA's premier dam-building agencies,
the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers), and a small sector of the
international aid community (coordinated through the United Nations Development
Programme) for whom the Mekong represented an important symbol of cooperative
development (on these latter actors, see Nguyen, 1999).
     During this formative period (roughly the late 1950s until the early 1970s), the
Mekong Project was also dominated by the idea of the Pa Mong dam, a massive
impoundment slated for construction on the mainstream of the river on the Thai ^
Lao border 20 km upstream of Vientiane. The project would have required resettlement
of at least 250 000 people, and was one of a series of ten to twelve planned dams
constituting a `Mekong Cascade' through which, theoretically, control of the river's
flow for multiple purposes (for example, hydropower, irrigation, and flood control)
could be most efficiently achieved. Mekong planners argued that the water stored in
the Pa Mong reservoiröand diverted through a series of canals and smaller dam
projectsöcould be used to irrigate an estimated two million ha in northeast Thailand.
The calculated hydroelectric potential of the dam was also prodigious, amounting to a
total installed capacity of 4600 megawatts (Mekong Secretariat, 1989, page 33). In
short, the Thai state, led primarily by officials of its nascent development planning
agency (the National Economic Development Board) and of the National Energy
Authority (NEA), an agency created in part to translate Mekong-related initiatives
into a Thai territorial context, pegged its early hopes for transforming northeastern
agriculture and supplying energy for national economic growth on construction of the
Pa Mong dam. Yet it was the focus on bringing water to the northeast (through a
nascent KCM project) that animated prominent Thai officials who, while aware of the
potential benefits of hydroelectricity, perceived irrigation development via interbasin
transfers as the most direct way to capture the benefits of vast water resources (the
Mekong) they argued were being squandered through non-use. They also astutely
linked manipulation of Mekong water for the benefit of Thai development aspirations
to the continuing participation of Thailand in the evolving cooperative forum of the
Mekong Committee.
     At a meeting of the Mekong Committee in 1973, Dr Boonrod Binson, an architect
of Thailand's water resource policy and planning throughout the late 1960s and 1970s
and Thai representative to the Mekong Committee, boldly asserted Thailand's stance
regarding Pa Mong and, in general, towards cooperation within the Mekong Committee
framework. He argued the ``improvement of agriculture in Northeast Thailand is to us
of utmost importance ... .'' Low agricultural productivity ``can be changed, but can only
be changed in a really big way, by large-scale irrigation and improved agricultural
practice'', and Pa Mong would assist in bringing this change about.
   ``It is truly the Mekong River itself that holds the key to the prosperity of the north-
     eastern part of Thailand as well as to our national power supply in the coming
     decades. Our interest in, and support of, the Mekong Committee is firmly rooted
     on that premise'' (Boonrod Binson, quoted in Mekong Committee, 1973).
A similar refrain was picked up in the Mekong Committee's `informational' documents
throughout the 1970s:
2240                                                                             C Sneddon

   ``In the long run, Thailand's well-being will depend in no small measure on the
     Mekong. One single dam, such as Pa Mong could provide a massive block of power
     to meet essential needs _ in the future only Mekong water, stored behind a
     mainstream dam, could sustain the irrigation development needed for that region
     to produce enough food, rather than becoming a liability to the rest of the country''
     (Mekong Secretariat, 1977).
     Water resource development plans internal to Thailand during this period were
equally transparent, and equated water resource development not only with rising
agricultural production, but with increased `national security' as well. For example,
the Fourth National Development Plan, published in 1976, noted that ``water projects
have to be implemented on a region-wide basis and more water from the Mekong
River must be pumped and channeled into irrigation canals'' (GOT, 1976, page 155).
Such an undertaking would provide a ``psychological boost to inhabitants of the North-
east region and thus strengthen national security''. So by the 1970s the Thai state had
effectively linked its willingness to engage in the emergent actor-network of the
Mekong basin to its own interests in pursuing agroindustrial development in the north-
east. While still unnamed, the contours and broad goals of the KCM öusing water
from the Mekong to irrigate the northeastöhad been established.
     However, it was also during this period that the Pa Mong project became an
obstacle to seamless evolution of the KCM network. Amidst rising concerns over the
ecological and social effects such a massive dam was sure to engender (see Challinor,
1973), not to mention the political turmoil and acute conflict encompassing mainland
Southeast Asia throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the actual construction of Pa
Mong seemed less and less likely. Furthermore, Vietnamese officials had long expressed
concerns about the ramifications of the gigantic Pa Mong dam on the Mekong's delta,
an economically critical region in terms of rice and fish production (see, for example,
Dang, 1967). The Thai state, realizing the increasing uncertainty of the Pa Mong dam,
began to place greater emphasis on the seemingly simpler task of withdrawing water
directly from the Mekong through pumps located almost precisely where the Pa Mong
dam, had it been constructed, would have been located. As expressed by the Mekong
Committee's Advisory Board during a meeting in the early 1970s,
   ``Irrigation development could therefore be planned step by step without affecting
     decisions on the [Pa Mong] dam construction ... [in accordance with] the Board's
     recognition of the vital role to be played in the development of north-east Thailand
     by irrigation using Pa Mong water'' (Mekong Committee, 1972, page 7).
     Although relatively dormant for a significant period in the late 1970s and early
1980s, the KCM again appeared prominently on the development agenda of Thai water
resource planners by the latter half of the 1980s. A series of reports commissioned by
the Office of the Prime Minister and carried out by consulting firms reaffirmed the
necessity of watering the northeast. In the words of one report, irrigation development
in the region will not only increase rice production, but
   ``will allow a move away from subsistence agriculture towards forestry, livestock produc-
     tion and industry ... . The establishment of agro-industry must be the focal point of
     development ... . Irrigation, required to produce raw materials for the agro-processing
     industry, will create wealth and job opportunities in the rural areas'' (Biwater, 1987,
     page 47).
     With regard to obtaining water for the northeast, the report asserts that the ``most
appropriate and tangible investment that can now be made is in irrigation schemes on
the Mekong to make use of flows draining from the Region or to bring water from
assured supplies into the hardship areas of the Region'' (Biwater, 1987, page 55). This
and similar studies led directly to full endorsement of the KCM project by the cabinet
Reconfiguring scale and power                                                         2241

of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan in April 1989 (Sombat, 1993). The Thai state
had successfully negotiated the extension of the nascent interbasin transfer project,
which had previously been contingent on the stored waters of the Pa Mong dam, to
encompass a large portion of the northeast regardless of Pa Mong. The result of this
strategy was commencement of construction activities on the various irrigation infra-
structure projects (for example, pumping stations and canals) that, when linked within
the public discourse of the state in the early 1990s, eventually became the KCM
4.2 Involutions and contractions
As argued earlier, representations of power viewed within an actor-network frame
cannot be isolated in terms of individual actions; nor is power some innate quality of
specific people or groups. Power ``over something or someone is a composition made by
many people [and things]'' (Latour, 1986, page 265) and this composition is made
visible in part by its effects on other sets of actor networks. Indeed, it was not until
the KCM project motivated resistance to its implementation on the grounds of likely
social and ecological impacts, a resistance negotiated through other kinds of actor-
networks (for example, Thai academics, NGOs, people's organizations, and a range of
nonhumans), that the KCM network's membership and power effects became more
palpable and comprehensible. These shifts set in motion a series of extensions and
involutions of the KCM network that help describe the shifting geographical scales
of conflict surrounding the interbasin transfer project.
     Oppositional voices first arose in the early 1990s, after the scheme became officially
encoded in the registry of state projects. Thai criticsöassociated with an increasingly
effective and well-organized coalition of Thai social movements (see Hirsch, 1997) and
some crucial transnational allies such as the US-based International Rivers Network
(IRN)öbegan pointing out that the KCM project by its very nature would mobilize
ecological agents that would severely undermine projected benefits. For example, KCM
opponents note the likelihood of increased salinization of soils following implementa-
tion of the full scheme (Yuwadee and Chakrit, 1997) in a region with an estimated 19.4
million rai (3.1 million ha) of land at risk of becoming saline (official from the Depart-
ment of Land Development, quoted in Sombat, 1993). Indeed, the Khorat Plateau, as
the landform that delineates the northeast region from the rest of the Thai national
territory is known, is underlain by several expansive geological formations all of which,
to differing degrees, contain rock salts that have contributed to an inordinately high
percentage of saline soils in the region (Wongsomsak, 1986). Of the seven dams
proposed under the KCM project, two are finished and several others are under
construction. By the end of the first stage of the KCM, around 3000 million cubic
meters (mcm) of water will have been diverted from the Mekong, but there are
no details regarding this figure to be found in the project document. In addition, no
environmental impact assessments have been undertaken for the individual projects
falling under the umbrella of the KCM (Walakkamon, 1995). One of the `node projects'
of the KCM network, the Rasi Salai weir and irrigation works (see below), has already
promulgated complaints among local farmers of soils and water so saline that it has
become impossible to cultivate the area.
     Critics of the project, primarily Thai academics and Thai NGOs (prominently the
Bangkok-based Project for Ecological Recovery), also charge that the scheme is motivated
almost purely by potential political gain and are highly skeptical of the government's
claims regarding the improvement of living conditions in the northeast (Watershed 1995,
page 27). Prakob Wirojanagud, Professor of Water Engineering at Khon Kaen University
and long-time advocate of small-scale water resource development, argued that the
2242                                                                              C Sneddon

``demand [for water] is among politicians and technocrats'' and not among the region's
rice farmers (quoted in Sombat, 1993). The project has indeed won strong backing from
members of parliament hailing from the northeast, who perceive the massive construction
expenditures as means of solidifying the allegiance of village and district officials, whose
assistance is critical in gaining (or buying) northeastern votes during parliamentary
elections. As the deputy director of the Department of Energy Development and Promo-
tion (DEDP)öthe government agency with primary responsibility for implementing
KCMöput it: ``How can the Government scrap the project? Every MP in the Northeast
wants the project implemented. Without water, how can we make the Northeast a gateway
to Indochina?'' (quoted in Sombat, 1993).
     The majority of criticism and frustrations over the KCM project emanating from
academics, NGOs, and peoples' organizations has been directed at the DEDP, which in
its previous incarnation as the NEA was responsible for the construction of hundreds
of pump irrigation projects throughout the northeast region. Described by one
observer as ``deceptively obscure'' (Ryder, 1994), DEDP has carefully nurtured the
general idea of an interbasin transfer project through its linkages with Mekong inter-
governmental institutions öthe aforementioned Dr Boonrod Binson was a director of
NEA, and DEDP is the line agency currently responsible for representing Thailand's
interests on the Mekong River Commissionöand through its quiet advocacy of the
KCM project when it became a political priority for successive regimes of the Thai
government in the 1990s. In many ways, construction of the KCM scheme has become
central to DEDP's organizational identity, and one of the few remaining ways in which
this rather odd agency, whose broader responsibilities have been consistently reduced
or taken over by other offices since the 1960s, can exercise power. This echoes Dean's
(1999, page 26) admonition that ``government is accomplished through multiple actors
and agencies rather than a centralized set of state apparatuses, and _ we must reject
any a priori distribution and divisions of power and authority.''
     Although the varied political motivations of KCM advocates are clear, most of the
arguments surrounding the potential ecological and social effects of the KCM project
are conjectural at this point. Critics of the project have yet to enlist sufficient scientific
discourses and practices (for example, soil studies, and biological inventories) to their
cause, in part because the scientifically constructed evidence simply does not exist and
in part because the Thai state officials have a long history of ignoring or confirming
`science' as it suits their needs. For example, the precise mechanisms through which
irrigation water contributes to salinization of soils at each topographically distinct site
in northeast Thailand remains unknown, although the acreage of saline land continues
to expand (Wongsomsak, 1986). Yet, it is at this point that I want to highlight that the
KCM network, extending through the discursive and material labors of the Thai state
to incorporate the water of the Mekong basin into a broad project of regional devel-
opment in the northeast, suffered a series of involutions, or contractions, in the 1990s.
It is during this period that a new set of `local' environmental conflicts emerged at
specific nodes along the KCM network.
     Construction of the Rasi Salai weir on the Mun River in Si Sa Ket province
concluded in 1993 at a cost of Bt560 million (roughly US $22 million), and quickly
angered local communities because of problems associated with salinization of rice
fields and loss of a valuable paa thaam, akin to a freshwater mangrove forest, inun-
dated by the dam's reservoir [Yuwadee and Chakrit (1997); see Chainarong et al (2000)
for a more detailed account of Rasi Salai]. Recently, the successful campaign of nearly
1000 families from the area inundated by Rasi Salai to gain compensation for live-
lihood losses has generated intense political conflict. Farmers not party to the original
claim and other factions from the same region, organized by proponents of the dam
Reconfiguring scale and power                                                                    2243

who proclaim its irrigation benefits, have stalled compensation payments. Political
parties supporting the pro-dam groups oppose compensation on the grounds that
payments would exceed the original cost of the dam, and that promises made by a
previous Thai prime minister need not be upheld by the current one (Onnucha, 1998).
On 9 May 2000 thousands of local farmers, frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations
over just compensation for their lost farmlands, took control of the Rasi Salai dam and
demanded that water be released downstream of the dam to improve salt-affected soils.
About fifty officials from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOSTE) were
locked in their offices near the dam (The Nation [Bangkok], 2000). Several weeks later,
the minister of MOSTE ordered the DEDP to open the gates of the Rasi Salai dam and
leave them ajar for two years. He also asked DEDP to survey the lands surrounding the
reservoir, because the agency had not done this prior to construction, making it nearly
impossible to distinguish legitimate from bogus claimants to compensation. The DEDP
has paid out Bt57 million (roughly US $1.4 million) to 775 villagers near the project, but
another 17 000 are still seeking compensation (Pennapa, 2000)öthe difference in calcula-
tion in amount of US $ reflects the extreme change in exchange rate between periods.
    A crucial moment in the case of Rasi Salai arrived when communities in the
affected areas, in alliance with Thai academics, began highlighting the important role
of the aforementioned paa thaam in contributing to local livelihoods. In the early 1990s
Prasit Khunarat of Khon Kaen University's Research and Development Institute
conducted a study of these forests and their livelihood importance to local commu-
nities. People living near the forests grow both khao nong and khao rai, two different
varieties of rice. Prasit found that there are over 100 species of plants in these forests
and a wide variety of fish species. Prasit's report also notes that in one village, 80% of
the inhabitants supplemented their income with resources harvested from the local paa
thaam. The area associated with the paa thaam is also a very important resource in
terms of grazing cattle, and provides a variety of food sources including hares, turtles,
squirrels, mushrooms, shellfish, and man saeng (a type of tapioca) (TDSC, 1994). I
argue that the paa thaam of the Nam Mun in the area of Rasi Salai can be seen as a
complex socioecological hybrid that, by virtue of its enfoldment into the ambitions of
the KCM project, helped mobilize additional actors (for example, Thai academics) who
have added their voices to those resisting the project.
    Additional water conflicts have emerged along the veins of the KCM network. The
ongoing turmoil over the Pak Mun dam near the confluence of the Mun and Mekong
rivers is well documented (Glassman, 2002),(5) and the Nam Phong (Sneddon, 2002)
and Nam Songkhram (Lohmann, 1998) projectsöboth targeted as facets of the KCM
schemeöhave been the site of ongoing protests over state interventions in river basins.
Somewhat lost amidst the intricacies of the political ecology of these projects was
precisely that these were in fact components of the broader interbasin scheme to
withdraw and redistribute the flows of the Mekong.
    The Thai state has singlemindedly pursued the appropriation of the northeast's
river systemsöand, prominently, Mekong flowsöover the past four decades, and
nothing represents this continuity in developmentalist thinking better than the KCM
project. However, the KCM interbasin transfer project/actor-network has been forced
to negotiate a series of extensions and contractions throughout its history. The Mekong

(5)The Pak Mun damsite was occupied by a group of roughly 3000 people from villages adversely
affected by the dam in May 2000. These protestors demanded that the dam's sluice gates be opened
to allow migrating fish to pass relatively unfettered into upstream breeding areas (Chainarong and
Imhof, 2000). Although the Thai government reacted violently in November 2000 by organizing a
brutal physical assault on the villagers, it eventually allowed the opening of the gates (Bangkok Post
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