Theses Doctoral

Power Failures: Engineers and the Litani River, 1918–1978

Lawson, Owain

This dissertation is a history of efforts to develop the Litani River in Lebanon. Under French rule (1920–43), development projects shaped an unequal distribution of infrastructure that privileged Christian and urban regions. A cohort of nationalist Lebanese engineers advocated developing the Litani River, in Lebanon’s Shi‘a-majority southwest, as a means to foster national unity by resolving inequalities among Lebanon’s religious communities. The resulting Litani project (1955–65) was Lebanon’s first grand-scale hydroelectric project.

The United States, France, and the World Bank made the project central to their respective strategies in the decolonizing Middle East. Lebanese engineers competed and collaborated with European and American experts to design infrastructure that connected the Litani, and Lebanon’s hinterland, with the capital, Beirut. Economists, religious leaders, farmers, and communists debated infrastructure designs in Beirut’s bourgeoning public sphere. The completed infrastructure generated electricity for Beirut’s consumers by extracting water from the impoverished rural margins. The World Bank deemed the project a qualified success as an investment. But most in Lebanon considered it a monumental failure because the infrastructure did not meet urgent needs. Rather, the infrastructure materialized preexisting inequalities between Beirut and its peripheries, which provided a visible injustice that a rural Shi‘i political-religious movement mobilized to demand equal rights. Unlike familiar histories of development in which rural communities resist state intrusion, in Lebanon, rural actors and engineers sought to build a larger and more equitable state by constructing socially just infrastructure.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Elshakry, Marwa
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 3, 2021