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  • In this IssueSymposium on Water Issues
  • Thomas P. Huber (bio)

In a masterpiece of understatement, Klein, Klingner, and Seely (2003) state that "Technology transfer is a complex social process." The transfer of technology is nearly always messy, often confusing, and deals with issues unimagined before getting involved in the process. The transfer of technology, when it deals with water (an essential element of life, economic development, social communities, and national politics), is one of the most complex areas facing the world today. We need water for nearly every aspect of our existence. It grows our food, is needed for just about every ecosystem on earth, carries away much of our waste, washes our bodies—the list could go on for many pages. The desperate need for water and our dependence on it make it one of the most contentious substances on earth—and thereby vastly complicate the challenge of diffusing the technical capacity to provide better methods for water supply and use for the citizens of the world.

Water issues in the United States, and in the West in particular, are no different from those elsewhere. John Wesley Powell, famous for his exploration of the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon in 1869, was one of the renaissance scientists of his era who understood the power of water and the uses of water in developing the entire region (Stegner, 1953). Powell realized that the Homestead Act of 1862 was a disaster waiting to happen as people moved west to find land and a home. The 160 acres allowed in the act was much too big a piece of land if one were in the humid East, but it was much, much too small if one were to homestead west of the hundredth meridian. Powell actually tried to get the number of acres changed to 2,560 acres and to have water use regulated at the basin level so that dry land farming and ranching would have a chance. His efforts ran into stubborn resistance from nearly every quarter and were doomed to failure in an era dominated by the euphoria of wetter than average years. Those wet years did not last, as Powell knew they would not, and many sagas of families losing their land, crops, cattle, and lives have often been retold since.

From these disasters in the West was born the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1902. The era of big dams, mammoth irrigation projects, structural flood control, and eventually hydroelectric power was born. In one sense the bureau was a smashing success; it allowed rampant growth of farming and ranching in the arid West and eventually promoted the growth of some of the country's largest urban areas. In other ways, it was less than successful, particularly in the effects on the environment and on the social fabric of many communities. But the bureau became recognized around the world for its dam-building expertise, and this perception of excellence attracted the attention of organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and others to help with large-scale water projects deemed necessary by national and international leaders. The Bureau of Reclamation's role as a change agent for the diffusion of technology, then, becomes a focus for two of the papers in this issue and lurks in the background for the others.

David A. Biggs's article, Reclamation Nations: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Role in Water Management and Nation-Building in the Mekong Valley, 1945–1975, is one of three papers in this issue that deal with the messy and often ill-judged transfer of U.S. water technology to developing nations. Biggs writes in detail about the "nation-/river-building" efforts of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Southeast Asia before, during, and after the war in Vietnam. The U.S. model of developing these "reclamation nations" along the lower Mekong River had as much to do with geopolitics as it had to do with water technology or policy. A major irony in this case is that the Bureau of Reclamation fosters a culture of seeming objectivity and a "trust in the numbers" at the same time that its...


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