Living with a Dam: A Case of Care Practices in Large Technical Systems

Living with a Dam: A Case of Care Practices in Large Technical Systems

Tihomir Mitev
DOI: 10.4018/ijantti.2015040102
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The paper discusses the issue of safe functioning of large technical systems (LTS) and questions what are the principles of “operating and living together” of heterogeneous communities. It argues that personal interactions between humans, nature, and technology are crucial for the sustainable operation of socio-technical systems. The paper presents some results of an “ethnographic case study” carried out in one of the biggest hydro-energy systems in Bulgaria, that of “Kardzhali dam”. In order to make clear how an ‘intersubjective' (or inter-actantial) space between humans and non-humans is being formed and how it could bring a sustainable functioning of the dam, the paper explores the micro layer of actors' interactions, i.e. the co-existence in everyday life. Particularly, it is focused on the experience of the dam's chief Ivan Delchev who has spent over 40 years (most of his life and the whole life of the dam) in diligent work, living with technology. Such a long lasting habitation in common space and time brings to the formation of a specific “heterogeneous coupling” (), where caring for the Other (non-human) could not be explained just as “trials of strength” (). Searching for pathways of possible dialogue between Actor-Network Theory and phenomenology (Schutz, Levinas), the analysis reveals in what way “growing together” with technology and “feeling its own rhythm and its own breathing”, in the words of the dam's chief, have a crucial contribution to the safe operation of the whole hydroelectric system.
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2. Dams As Societal Structures

Dams have been promoted as an important means of meeting perceived needs for water and energy services and as long-term, strategic investments with the ability to deliver multiple benefits. Some of these additional benefits are typical of all large public infrastructure projects, while others are unique to dams and specific to particular projects. (“Dams and development. A New Framework for Decision-Making” 2000: 11)

Since ancient times water - not only as a foundation of life on Earth, but also as a resource for prosperity and development - has been deeply woven into human communities. Many see rivers as the arteries of the Earth. It is not by chance that in almost every culture rivers are being worshiped: as Patric McCully shows, the naming of water as mother is a significant common-place in religious myths and legends from Egypt to Thailand (McCully, P. 2001) Moreover, it is not accidentally that the first cities of ancient civilizations have been built near rivers – like the communities that have occupied the valleys of Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Huang He, etc. Since then people have been using water for drinking, irrigation, feeding (developing fishing), for the extraction of valuable medicinal substances, for protection from enemy attacks and as a means of transportation, etc. A significant “technology” of water use is the construction of dams (used mainly for irrigation) which goes back to the fourth millennium BC in history.

That long-standing “cooperation” between water and human communities is an evidence of its importance. All these “primitive” types of water use indicate the “dependence” and attachment of human communities to natural environment and reveals the constant work on adjusting and building a commonly shared life between human society and nature. In fact, the human civilization starts with the cooperation between humans and water.

Despite the long history of dam construction, their wide distribution and development is marked by two major events: the invention of the water turbine in 1832 by the French engineer Benoit Fourneyron and subsequent development by James Francis, Lester Pelton and Viktor Kaplan, and the promotion of the electricity era at the end of the same century. Industrial revolution, the expansion of modern science and economics contribute to the development of the technology of construction of dams and hydraulic structures as a whole. The latter appeared to reach its peak in the 20th century. According to the World Commission on Dams, till the 1950’s there have been about 5000 large dams, and in the year 2000 they are over 45 000. Eventually, these days about 3 800 km3 of fresh water is withdrawn annually from the world’s lakes and rivers. (“Dams and development” 2000 The report of the world commission on dams: 3-8).

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