Three Gorges Probe

Background report: Resettlement problems of the Three Gorges dam (final part)

by Wu Ming

October 26, 1998

Earlier this year, sociologist Wu Ming travelled to the counties around the Three Gorges Dam. Here is the third excerpt from his study, published by the International Rivers Network in March, 1998.


V. Conclusions: Old Lessons Unlearned

At the time of its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China had no large reservoirs and no more than 40 small hydroelectric stations. By 1985, centrally planned projects to generate electricity through hydropower increase irrigation coverage and control flooding had resulted in the construction of more than 80,000 reservoirs and 70,000 hydroelectric stations. By 1992, the year when the Three Gorges Dam project was officially approved, China had 369 large-scale reservoirs with capacity exceeding 100 million cubic meters.

At present, China’s dam-building effort is reaching new heights with 15 gigantic hydropower stations, including the Three Gorges Dam, under construction, each with a planned generating capacity of over 1,000 megawatts. To date, 10.2 million people have been resettled for the construction of dams and reservoirs in China, according to official figures. Of the country’s completed dam projects, the largest in terms of population resettlement are Sanmenxia with 410,000 people displaced, Danjiangkou with 380,000 and Xin’anjiang with 280,000. In each of these cases, resettlement was plagued by economic or political problems, and the process of moving people from the areas to be flooded was rushed, often accompanied by intimidation and sometimes outright violence. The haste and forcible nature of resettlement can be traced, in part, to people’s reluctance to leave their homes, but ultimately it was caused by poor planning, including insufficient compensation, shortages of farmland and the selection of unsuitable sites for resettlement.

One consequence of these problems in the past was the long-term disfranchisement of the resettlers, most of whom were rural residents suffering from dire poverty largely because they were not properly resettled. In an effort to ease their impoverishment, the Ministry of Water Resources embarked, in 1986, on a 1.9 billion yuan rehabilitation program at 46 sites of completed water projects where more than five million people who had been resettled were hardly making ends meet. But in 1989, the Ministry of Agriculture’s poverty relief office acknowledged that roughly 70 percent of the country’s 10.2 million “reservoir relocatees” were still living in “extreme poverty.”

Living conditions for some of these people had improved by 1994, thanks to government relief efforts. However, a World Bank report released that year cited the Chinese government as saying that 46 percent of China’s resettlers displaced for water control projects had yet to be “properly resettled” and that they “were at great risk of poverty.” The fact that years, even decades, after displacement a significant number of the resettlers remained in poverty is a clear indication of the horrendous nature of the policy failures involved and their enormous cost in human suffering. In the case of the Three Gorges Dam, the Chinese government insists that lessons have been learned from the past and that old mistakes will be avoided. But despite government propaganda saying that the dam’s construction and its impact will improve people’s lives and the region’s development, those slated for resettlement have sober expectations about their future.

Throughout my trip, interviewees expressed a sense of resignation about the inevitability of the Three Gorges Dam project, and a widespread, though by no means unanimous, belief that people’s living standards and general quality of life would decline after resettlement. This feeling is particularly strong among farmers and elderly people. “Four years from now my entire family will have to move away whether we want to go or not,” a woman farmer in Fengjie said, “but we still don’t know where we will rebuild our home. Are we going to live next to our old neighbours and relatives? We don’t know. Are we going to have enough land to farm? No, that I know as clearly as I know the five fingers of my hand. There is no land to farm behind our village. When the time comes, I will refuse to move out of my village. They will have to use police to drag me away if they want me to leave.”

In an equally revealing statement, a county-seat physician said that many of his elderly patients confided in him their determination to stay where they are until the flood comes. “These old people have lived on the riverbanks for so long,” he said. “They have built their houses here, cultivated their vegetable gardens on the slopes, opened small shops near the docks, and they have their particular teahouses for talking with their old friends. It will cost them more to move everything than the government will provide in compensation. Above all, they want to be buried in the family graveyard together with generations of ancestors. They are depressed by the economic loss they will suffer and disturbed by the inevitable breakup of the emotional ties they have had with this land.”

As in any such project, there are potential winners and losers. In the case of the Three Gorges Dam project, the winners are, in addition to the handful of model households, urban residents who work for government agencies. Of all the buildings now being erected at the resettlement sites in Yunyang, Fengjie, Wushan, Badong and Zigui counties, government office and government-controlled apartment buildings are of the best quality. The new office building of the Zigui County government, for example, easily rivals in terms of size and quality those of the Beijing and Shanghai municipal governments. This building and others like it were constructed with money from resettlement funds. Due to popular resistance and official mismanagement, and the resulting slow pace of resettlement, it is doubtful that more than 50,000 people have been relocated so far for the Three Gorges Dam. Of these, only a small percentage can probably be classified as “properly resettled,” given the extent of official mismanagement and falsified data.

If the Chinese government is determined to realize its plan, the next five years will require the relocation of more than 500,000 people in order to raise the water level of the reservoir to the 135-meter mark by the year 2003. By 2009, when the entire dam structure is scheduled to be completed, the water will be raised to 175 meters, and this will require that at least another half million people be moved. Those local officials who still care about the future of their localities are gravely concerned about how this many people can be moved by 2003, as well as the later relocations. Given the problems experienced thus far, many informants said that the targeted population will continue to find ways to resist relocation so that they can stay near the river as long as possible.

A likely consequence of such resistance will be the relocation of an enormous number of people within a short period just before the water is raised to the 135-meter mark. This possibility, and the resulting potential for massive unrest, explains why three senior officials in one of the five counties I visited agreed that by 2003 no one in the reservoir area would want to be in charge of population resettlement. As one of them predicted: By then, some 500,000 people will need to be relocated immediately. But there won’t be enough money to relocate all these people. There won’t be enough jobs for the relocated factory workers. And there won’t be enough land for the relocated farmers. If the central government insists on filling up the reservoir, it will have to rely on the military or a man-made flood to force people out of their homes.”

These local officials recognize that it is now extremely difficult under the present political climate to reverse the project. What they hope for is a decision to lower the reservoir level, thus reducing the total number of people who will have to be displaced. Should such a policy turnaround occur under the premiership of Zhu Rongji, who is said to be deeply concerned about the enormous financial cost of the project in China’s current precarious economic situation, many people in the Three Gorges area would welcome it.

Three Gorges Probe welcomes submissions. However, it is not a forum for political debate. Rather, Three Gorges Probe is dedicated to covering the scientific, technical, economic, social, and environmental ramifications of completing the Three Gorges Project, as well as the alternatives to the dam.

Publisher: Patricia Adams Executive Editor: Mu Lan ISSN 1481-0913

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

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