Dr Majed Akhter, a lecturer in environment and society at King’s College London, talks about his work examining the contentious history of dams built in the 20th century, from the Colorado River, to Ghana, to the Indus, and the politics of international development. He is one of ten 2019 New Generation Thinkers whose research will be made into radio and television programmes for the BBC in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Tell us about yourself

I always hesitate before answering that most common of icebreakers: ‘where are you from’? Although I was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there until I was a 15, I don’t speak of word of Arabic and never formed any kind of substantial relationship with a Saudi.

My community in Saudi Arabia consisted of my friends from the international school I attended, and an expatriate community of Pakistani families. Because I was surrounded by a sort of Pakistani community, it felt like I was going ‘home’ when I moved to Lahore as a teenager. Pakistan would also be, later in my life, the place where I started my graduate studies (also in Lahore), and where I got my first job (in Karachi). Along the way, I also spent formative years in the US (Georgia, Arizona and Indiana), where I went to college, met my wife, and became a professional academic. So – where am I from? Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the US – or somewhere in between all this.

In 2018, I moved to London to take up a position as a geography lecturer at King’s College London. Getting to know the city and its people has been exciting and rewarding. The parks, buildings, bustling markets, overlapping systems of public transit, and the flows of people from all over the world all feed my natural geographical curiosity about how social relations and patterns are expressed spatially.

What is the area of your research?

I write about the geopolitics of large infrastructures. My dissertation examined government documents, diplomatic archives, and expert interviews to critically revaluate the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, a celebrated treaty in the interdisciplinary field of transboundary water studies. I examined the geopolitical and political implications of the massive infrastructural development program that accompanied the treaty – the Indus Basin Plan. This plan was, at the time, the world’s largest and most expensive integrated civil engineering programme.

Over the 1960s and 1970s, a suite of hydraulic infrastructures was constructed across the Pakistani landscape – including two dams still among the largest in the world. My dissertation examined how the treaty and the accompanying plan reconfigured geopolitical and economic relations at two scales: between Pakistan and India, and between the provinces of the Pakistani federation.

More recently, I have been taking my research to another scale: the continental. I’m interested in how large inter-regional infrastructures have shaped the development programmes and imaginative geographies of a succession of imperial powers in Asia. Britain, Japan, the US, and most recently China have all tried to imagine Asia as an imperfectly integrated region that could be rearranged through the construction of a variety of large physical infrastructures, such as ports, railways, highways and energy networks. To date, I have visited nine archives in five countries to learn how and why state planners, technicians and diplomats imagined and planned the making of a world region through large infrastructures.

What is the importance of this research?

My research is provoked by, and attempts to respond to, geopolitical controversy. My dissertation was in part an attempt to develop an ecological and inter-scalar dimension to a long-standing debate in Pakistan about uneven power dynamics between the country’s provinces. My current research on inter-Asian infrastructures was prompted by a political debate in Pakistan about the infusion of Chinese capital into the country, under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Would this flood of capital be good for the country’s economy and political development – or would it lock Pakistan into a dependent and damaging relationship to a stronger power? As I began to investigate the operations of Chinese infrastructural capital, I realised that these debates were happening all over Asia, and indeed across much of Africa and Latin America.

This research is important because too often debates around international relations and geopolitics occur without considering how historical geography, uneven power relations between regions and classes, and cultural politics shape the way infrastructures are imagined, implemented, and received. My goal with the book that comes out of this research, tentatively titled ‘Mastering geography: Empire, infrastructure, and the making of a world region’, is to offer an account of infrastructure-led development that is historically nuanced, spatially sensitive, and attentive to the uneven political geography of power.

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