Three Gorges Probe

Special report: Major problems and hidden troubles in relocation of Three Gorges project

by Wei Yi (Central China Teachers’ University)

May 28, 1999

Focus on Yunyang County, Chongqing City

Editor’s note: The Three Gorges Project is, again, been seriously debated within the Chinese government. In February, an article was published in a think-tank journal of state policies, Strategy and Management, questioning the current strategy of resettlement in the dam areas. The first major critique of the project in the Chinese media since 1990, it discloses some serious problems and troubles with the resettlement programme. In the end, it suggests that the dam height be lowered to 160 metres as the most feasible way of reducing the population to be relocated. Three Gorges Probe has obtained the article and translated it into English. For the Chinese version, please visit our website:

I. “Water Management Society” and Relocation

The disastrous flood in the Yangtze Valley in 1998 offers an opportunity for us to re-think the Three Gorges Project. Some people believed that if the Three Gorges dam had been built, the flood would have been prevented. The fact is that the dam would have some impact on preventing floods from the upper reaches, like the one in 1870, but it would have had a limited ability to control last year’s flood which was caused mainly by heavy rainfall in the middle reaches and the narrow drainage system of the Yangtze River. It is time for us to face a serious problem from the perspective of an ecological balance in the Yangtze region: the relocation issue of Three Gorges Project.

There is a theory that the Chinese imperial society was organized around a sophisticated system of irrigation and water management. Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, the water management-based political system developed to a new phase. The massive construction of irrigation and hydro-electric projects became not only a key component of the nation’s industrialization, but also an important way of political mobilization and penetration into rural society. The hydro projects were important to the communist “nation-building” plan. By the end of the 1980’s, China had built over 80,000 reservoirs and hydro-electric plants.

Water projects involved relocation issues. Between 1949 and 1989, there were 10 million people displaced by dams in China. There are still many unsolved problems. Specialists believe that one third of the population has been relatively well resettled, one third has been resettled with difficulty and the remaining one third has not been well resettled. The key problem is that we thought the relocation issue was merely an economic compensation issue, a supplementary issue to dam projects, an issue of how to educate the resettlers to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the national interests. In fact, the relocation issue is foremost a complicated social issue. It involves a series of issues related to modernization: social equality, development, regional disparity, social stability and ecological balance, etc. The attitude that treated relocation as a simple issue could make the relocation a hotbed for constant social instability, including petitions and collective actions. We have experienced more cases of failure than of success in our several decades of dam-related resettlement programmes.

The Three Gorges resettlement plan was derived from the idea of “development relocation.” It represented progress from the old practice. However, what exactly is this “development relocation?” And how to achieve it? There remain many questions to be answered. In the past eight years, there have been several successful experiences, but some new issues appeared which deserve proper attention and study. It is natural to have problems in resettlement. But we could only make the problems worse by ignoring them or trying to cover them up.

In this article, we focus our analysis on Yunyang County, Chongqing City. The displaced population in Chongqing accounts for 80% of the total relocatees in the Three Gorges Project. Yunyang is the county which has the largest area of land to be submerged in the region. It is also the second in the number of relocatees. About 120,000 people in the county have to be relocated. The number equals the total relocatees of Hubei Province. Densely populated with a limited land resource and industrial strength, it is rated as a poverty county under the state relief plan with a total population of 1.24 million.

II. Several Major Contradictions in Three Gorges Relocation

1. The contradiction of local relocation and the resettlement capacity of the area The key problem in Three Gorges relocation is that the area does not have sufficient land resource for the local relocation. In Yunyang County, there are 66,000 mu* (One mu equals 0.06 hectare) of land to be submerged. This would make the problem of land scarcity even more serious. The per capita arable land is only 0.879 mu in the county and one fourth of farmers have only 0.5 mu land per person. Although the submerged land accounts for only 4.8% of the county’s total arable land, it is the most fertile land situated in the Yangtze Valley. The land designated to be the new settlement is on barren hillside with impoverished soil and little water. The government has invested 17.36 million yuan in the last eight years to reclaim 17,600 mu land on the hillside, but achieved very limited success since it lacks water and transportation facilities. One of the reasons for the failure in soil improvement is a shortage of funding. To successfully enrich one mu of land requires about 2,000-4,000 yuan. However, the government provided only 400-1,200 yuan/mu.

Another problem is soil erosion. The soil in the dam site is mainly purple soil, which is eroded at the yearly rate of 10,240 kilogramme per mu. The area that suffers land erosion accounts for 61.7% in the county, and 66.2% in the area they are to be relocated. According to government regulations, farming land should not be on a slope over 25 degrees. However in Yunyang, over 48.1% of farming land is on the slopes exceeding 25 degree. On the one hand, there is a continuous increase of population (the population growth in Yunyang far exceeds the rate of 12 per thousand in the dam area). On the other hand, there is a rapid decrease of arable land due to the construction of the Three Gorges and soil erosion. The massive efforts to reclaim hillside land aggravated the problem of soil erosion, which resulted in more frequent natural disasters. In fact, the tension between the land scarcity and population demand in the area is close to a breaking point. Not only is the land resource for reclamation extremely limited, but also there is not much potential for enhancing the existing farmland capacity. After last year’s flood, the central government commanded that all the projects reclaiming hill slopes of over 25 degrees should be stopped and they should be returned to the forest. But this regulation cannot be enforced in the dam area since there is too much population pressure for land. In such a situation, if we still insist that the displaced population of the Three Gorges Project be resettled locally, it would not only be impossible to resettle the people, but also would completely destroy the environment of the area.

At present, some people are proposing the idea of developing high-yielding ecological agriculture in the area. But the problem is that the dam region does not have the conditions for such a development plan. First, most hillside is impoverished, barren land requiring many years to become arable land, even after soil improvement. Second, the natural climate is very severe in the area. There are frequent floods, droughts, storms and frosts. The county suffers minor droughts almost every year, and severe droughts once in every two years. In the spring season, it is frequented by cold currents. In the early summer and fall season, it often has rain storms. Third, the county does not have a strong technical team, which is necessary for developing a high-yielding ecological agriculture. Last and the most important, the area does not have the financial resources to develop high-yielding agriculture. To develop high-yielding agriculture requires massive funding, but the dam region is known for its weak economic base, and the state funds for relocation are very limited. There are several experimental pieces of high-yielding eco-farming in the area. But these are basically “planted” by money. Some specialists described it as a situation in which “the state gives out money, and farmers cultivate land.” But how much money can the state provide for a majority of the local people to conduct eco-farming in the area? Even if all relocated farmers are able to grow vegetables under plastic shields as promoted by eco-farming advocators, there is also a problem of finding a market.

The government’s resettlement plan also includes non-agricultural resettlement, meaning that those whose land has been totally submerged and who have no arable land to move back to will be provided with employment or compensation. Between October 1992 and May 1997, only 623 people had been given a job, accounting for only 23.2% of the population. Among the 358 people who worked in factories, 17.8% had been sent home since the factories were running at a loss. About 49.8% of local enterprises were losing money in 1997, the laid-off workers made up 20% of the total labour force.

At present, distributing compensation fees has become the main approach for non-agricultural resettlement. However, the source of the compensation comes only from the interest of the fund for resettlement (which is budgeted at 6,000-7,000 yuan/person). The monthly payment has increased from 35 yuan/person to 70 yuan/person, but it is still not enough to cover basic expenses. Of course these people could find jobs for themselves. But farmers without land could become the most disturbing force in society because they have nothing to lose. The tension between the resettled population and the local governments in the dam region has been running high.

2. The contradiction of administrative actions and economic actions

Dam-related displaced people are involuntary relocatees. The Chinese government has so far treated the involuntary relocation as a political task. All the procedures and plans are conducted and managed by the government. That means the relocation is managed mainly through administrative forces.

However, relocation also involves social actions. It is a re-arrangement of the regional labour force and productivity. It is a restructuring of local social and economic functions. A successful relocation lies not only in good government planning, but also in a market-oriented development economy. A relocation plan which takes no account of market forces and economic value systems would be very difficult to implement.

In the current situation, there is a huge gap between the resettlement funds available and the necessary funds to implement the relocation plan. When a new enterprise is set up or expanded, the major concern is to employ more resettled workers. Some enterprises have adopted out-of-date, labour-intensive technology just to take in more local workers. As such, the factories are less likely to be competitive in the market. Many such factories are losing money. If these factories close down, then many resettled workers would lose their jobs. A survey in Yunyang found that 60% of resettled workers had no positions in these factories. The Dongfang Silk Craft Factory in Wanxian County had employed a couple hundred relocatees. But many of them later returned to their villages or went to big cities for jobs since the factory didn’t have enough work. Since those relocatees had been considered by the local government as properly resettled, they would not be able to get any help from the local government. Their situation is quite worrisome.

The dam-related relocation is “involuntary relocation,” meaning that the move of the population is involuntary as a result of dam projects, not personal preference. It doesn’t mean that the government should not respect the willingness of the displaced population. Of course, relocatees have varied motives: some are opportunist, some dependent and some may feel attached to their homeland. The approach which handles the relocation from a perspective of economic incentives should not merely give relocatees a lump sum of money. It is the starting point for establishing a fair and justified bargaining system between the government and the relocatees. The relocation plan should not be decided only by the government. Nor should it be decided merely by the relocatees. The proper way is to grant the relocatees the right to participate in the relocation decisions and to try to find an acceptable point between the government relocation target and the wishes of the local population.

The current approach of resettlement is mainly decided by the government. There has been very limited participation from the local communities. Most people believe that since the government decided to move them, they should rely on the government for resettlement and compensation. If the government’s measures are not satisfactory, they may easily change their current passive attitude to strong protest against the government.

3. Contradiction of compensation equal to original values and fair compensation

One of the principles in the relocation compensation plan is that the payment is calculated based on the original values, standards and scales. Any demands exceeding the original scales or values would be considered excessive. For example, Yunyang County had expanded the width of its main road from 6-7 metres to 30 metres. It was criticised by the superior government and was told that they would be compensated only for the old road not the new one. This compensation plan didn’t take into consideration the long-term development of the local economy. Therefore, it would be difficult to implement.

Here we come to a very complicated issue: how to view the current underdeveloped situation in the dam area. The poor natural environment, weak economic base, low education level and a lack of transportation and communication facilities are the characteristic elements of the region. However, we have to recognize that the region had received almost no development investment in the last four decades due to the planned Three Gorges project. In Yunyang, the state investment was merely 98.81 yuan/person between 1950 and 1985. The figure was only 9.6% of the national average of 1,028 yuan/person. There were also policies that streets below the submergence level should not be widened or updated, no new housing projects should be undertaken and factories should not be allotted new equipment. The main road of downtown Yunyang County seat has been only 6-7 metre wide since 1949. The people in the region had made an enormous sacrifice for the Three Gorges project for so many years. The state is indebted to the region. The current compensation plan doesn’t take this historic indebtedness into consideration. In addition, it provides very little for future development. The people in the region have sacrificed and are now sacrificing their own interests for the project. And the limited benefits they will receive from the project will probably not offset the ecological and environmental damages they will suffer in future. The compensation based on the original development level is not only unfair to the local people, but will also make the region even poorer and create a population living under the poverty line.

The state has a specific fund for technological improvement of the submerged enterprises. But many companies could not obtain the funds because they could not find additional funding to complete the project. There is a vicious circle: the poorer the companies which need financial support, the more difficult it is for them to obtain funding. However, it is easier for more developed areas to receive government loans. For example, Fuling Prefecture, a relatively developed area, has received the majority of technological development loans the state allocated for the dam region although it does not have a large relocated population. In contrast, Wanxian Prefecture, which bears 75% of the relocated population in the region, has received only a limited amount of industrial loans. Even within the Wanxian Prefecture, the loans went to relatively richer county of Wanzhou, rather than the poorer Yunyang.

The call for “fair compensation” has been the focus of villagers’ attention in the dam region where the traditional ethics of “do not worry about poverty but worry about unequal distribution” prevails. Villagers in Gaoyang Township, Yunyang County had repeatedly appealed to the central government for more resettlement funds. They accused the local government of embezzling the relocation fund. They received a per capita fee of 10,000 yuan while villagers in Hubei and Chongqing got more. The fact is that the resettlement funding is different in every county. The difference in amount is not due to the embezzlement of local governments, but a result of different levels of development. For example, the per capita compensation is as follows, according to a 1994 plan of the Yangtze Water Commission:

Fengjie County: 9,458 yuan Zhongxian County: 7,611 yuan Kaixian County: 7,306 yuan Wushan County: 7,197 yuan Yunyang County: 6,773 yuan.

But among these counties, Yunyang has more land to be submerged and more villagers to be resettled. The compensation money is calculated based mainly on the quality of land. Therefore, poor counties which need more investment would get less compensation money.

Another example of unfair compensation is the price of housing. The same brick and wood structured house is calculated to cost 189 yuan for city residents, 179 yuan for township residents, and 134 yuan for rural residents. This pattern would repeat the disparity between the city and rural areas.

4. Contradiction between relocation region and beneficiary regions

Although the dam site population benefits in some degree from the Three Gorges dam, the people who benefit most from the dam are those in Hubei, Jiangsu and Shanghai. The central government has encouraged the benefiting regions to provide assistance to the dam regions. However, it is very difficult to find mutual beneficial projects between the dam region and beneficiary regions along the lower reaches of the Yangtze River because there is a great disparity in economic development between the two regions. At the present, the assistance from beneficiary provinces is mainly in terms of donations to the dam region, such as schools, equipment and some funds. These assistant actions are basically voluntary and not very substantial in helping the dam region build up its development muscle.

For instance, Yunyang County has Jiangsu Province as its supporting partner. Jiangsu is a major beneficiary province of the Three Gorges Project and also one of the most developed regions in China. What did it provide to Yunyang? Between 1994-1997, it donated about 40 million yuan (including products) to the county. This amount is far from enough to boost the local economy in Yunyang.

People in the dam region are quite understanding and supportive of the project. However, they have difficulty accepting the great disparity in living standards between their region and benefiting regions. For example, both Yunyang and Changshu are similar counties in terms of population (one million) and geographical proximity to the Yangtze River. But they have different incomes. In 1996, Yunyang had a GNP (Gross National Product) of 1 billion yuan with a county revenue of 100 million yuan. Its rural population has an income of 1,200 yuan per capita. In comparison, Changshu had a GNP of 16 billion yuan and a financial revenue of 1.1 billion yuan. Its farmers have an annual income of 6,000 yuan/person.

Some people may argue that it does not make sense to compare two completely different counties. The point is that they are linked together by the Three Gorges Project. In the present situation, the ecological capacity of the dam region is at its saturation point. The policy of local relocation will put the dam region in a more marginalized and underdeveloped situation. Since the 1980s, the disparity among regions has increased and become a sensitive nerve for the nation. The Three Gorges Project directly touches this nerve. In the dam site, people strongly urged that the benefiting regions should be responsible for resettlement. Of course, it is not a solution to simply let the benefiting regions bear the responsibilities of the relocated population. Our point is that there should be some balance of interests between the dam regions and benefiting regions. Otherwise, the disparities between regions could become a major issue of social instability.

5. Contradiction of short-term actions and the long-term project

The Three Gorges relocation will last for 18 years and affect 1.2 million people in two provinces and 21 counties. It is the world’s largest dam-related resettlement. Such a gigantic project requires a reliable and competent team of local officials who have a long-term vision.

However, this long-term project contradicts the short-term officialdom of local governments. At the county level, the term for county leaders is five years. The term for township leaders is three years. There have been frequent changes of local government personnel. In Yunyang County, the leadership in charge of resettlement has been changed three times at the director’s rank and five times at the deputy directors’ rank from 1992-1998. Although the government has severe punitive measures for any mishandling of resettlement funds, there were still quite a number of officials who embezzle money. In Yunyang County, over 2 million yuan of the resettlement fund has been misused and embezzled. A deputy head of the county and a resettlement bureau leader were sentenced to prison. In Xincheng County, seven resettlement leaders have been punished, and about five or six township leaders were removed from their positions.

Another problem is “fake resettlers.” Many townships provided a fake number of resettled people in order to get more money from the central government. The local government officials use this practice to put more money into their own pockets. This has angered real resettlers. Several cases of petitions were triggered by the “fake resettlers.”

The short-term practices are also conducted by relocatees too. They always want to get the resettlement fees as soon as possible. But they don’t necessarily use them for relocation purposes. Some people obtained relocation fees and moved their residential status to other places, but they remained working in the dam area. This kind of fake resettlement is rampant in the dam area.

III. A Brief Discussion

The Chinese government started re-thinking the resettlement capacity of the dam area after last year’s flood. It is considering moving the relocatees to other places. However, this is not something new. The distant relocation had been a common practice in dam-related relocation before Three Gorges. And there have been several experimental projects of distant relocation even in the Three Gorges Project.

The first problem with distant relocation is the location. Normally, relocatees are not willing to move from a relatively richer and more developed area to less developed areas. In China, all good areas have already been densely populated and have no empty places to wait for relocatees to inhabit. It is very difficult to find similar places for residents in the Yangtze Valley.

The second problem is the cultural integration of resettled populations in new communities. No matter how many resettlement funds they bring in, their arrival would create pressure on the host communities.

The third problem is the cost. Distant relocation would cost more than the current resettlement plan including the experimental fees for distant relocation, moving expenses, settlement fees for daily living articles and production tools. It would be difficult to implement the distant relocation, based on the current relocation fund.

The last problem is the psychological attachment of the relocatees to their home town. Persuading villagers to leave their ancestral places is a formidable task.

Although the distant relocation efforts may alleviate the resettlement tension in the dam region, it may create new social problems too. It should be considered as one of the alternative resettlement solutions. But to assuage the tension of social instabilities that would be caused by the resettlement in the next dozen years, the best solution is probably to reduce the dam height in order to reduce the number of people to be relocated. For example, if the normal water level in the Three Gorges reservoir were lowered to 160 metres, and the flood control level to 130 metres, more than 500,000 people would not have to be relocated. As such, 23 billion yuan of investment could be saved (at the price level of 1993).

It is important to note that if we don’t take the Three Gorges area relocation issue seriously, it will likely become an explosive social problem, a source of constant social instability in our country for the first half of the next century.

(Strategy and Management, January 1999)

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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