Owain Lawson

  • Fellowship year:2020-2021
  • University: Columbia University
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Middle East
  • Dissertation Title: Power Failures: Engineers and the Litani River, 1920-1978
  • My dissertation examines the history of the Litani River in Lebanon in the twentieth century. The Litani project (1955-1965) was Lebanon's first grand-scale hydroelectric development project and a central facet of American, French, and World Bank strategies in the decolonizing Middle East. I view this history through the eyes of Lebanese engineers, who, since the era of French Mandate rule (1920-1946), competed and collaborated with foreign experts to research, design, and build infrastructure that connected the Litani, and Lebanon's hinterland, with Beirut, the capital. The disastrous project provoked controversies that revealed an uneven landscape of sovereignty, social fragmentation, and competing visions of the future. The completed infrastructure materialized preexisting inequalities by extracting water from the rural margins to generate power for Beirut. A rising Shi'i movement seized upon the injustice to demand popular sovereignty and equal rights.

    "Power Failures" makes three central arguments. First, I argue that infrastructure becomes central to the experience of communal difference by rendering socioeconomic inequalities material. I reveal how inequalities in the built world encourage communities to mobilize on a sectarian basis as a strategy to win equal rights. Second, by assembling an archive of disparate Lebanese primaary sources that can speak back to the orderly archives of international institutions, my research argues that local debates shape such projects more durably than international imperatives. By following Lebanese engineers, rural movements, and Shi'i reformists, I de-center the mobile Western experts that have been the focus of scholarship on development. Third, I reveal a shift from an industrial ethic of natural resource management to a financial one in the decolonization era. Until 1954, Lebanese and foreign experts designed projects that put water to maximally efficient use and prevented waste. But the World Bank redesigned the Litani project around financial, rather than material, efficiency, resulting in infrastructure that wasted water but generated profits. This financial ethic persists and protects infrastructural injustices against demands for reform.