Three Gorges Probe

Rethinking resettlement

September 20, 2006

Leading researcher Chen Guojie identifies factors that have left millions of people who have been displaced by dams in China more deeply impoverished than before their relocation.

Chen Guojie is a senior researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. (Translation by Three Gorges Probe.)

Since the 1950s, 22 million people have been moved to make way for hydropower dams in China, according to official statistics. Most of the affected people are still living in poverty. Although some have seen their standard of living improve after resettlement, as many as eight million people displaced by dams, one-third of the total, are living in a state of absolute poverty. The problems associated with dam-related resettlement do not exist only at a single project, in a certain region or a particular time period; they are chronic and nationwide. They are not simple or technical issues, but rather, strategic and ideological ones. It is therefore impossible to solve these problems without a serious and comprehensive rethinking of the ideology and policies of the past, leading to reforms of the system and changed ways of thinking. The State Council recently unveiled a new subsidy to be given to those who have been resettled for dams in the past as well as those who will be moved for future projects. There is no doubt that this new policy is a welcome remedial measure to help deal with resettlement-related problems. At the same time, it would be unwise to cover up the failure to resettle people properly in the past, or to deny that policy mistakes were made. The power companies and dam builders in particular are worried about those failures and mistakes coming to light.

The seriousness of the problem

Dam-related resettlement ought to be a regional issue in which two parties are involved: the dam builders and the affected local people. But because it has damaged livelihoods and caused other social problems that could trigger unrest, resettlement has attracted international attention. And the reason is simple: Dam-related resettlement has deprived the affected groups of too much, it owes them too much, and it has caused too much repression.

  1. The problem is huge and widespread
    China has built 86,000 dams of all sizes in the past 50 years, flooding 20 million mu (1.3 million hectares) of farmland and forcing the relocation of as many as 50 million people, about 4 per cent of the country’s total population. Dams have been built on most of China’s
    rivers, so people affected by the construction of dams are to be found throughout the country. Where there is a river, there is a hydro project. People displaced by dams can also be found where no rivers exist. Sending and receiving areas face the same problems: space is running out, the environment is deteriorating, and the poor are becoming poorer.
  2. People displaced by dams do not benefit from them
    Before displacement, people who move to make way for dams expect their standard of living to improve. Local officials and power companies make this promise in order to encourage people to move as quickly as possible. But what the affected people get in reality is lip service and broken promises. In many cases, not only do they not attain a higher standard of living, but they actually become worse off than before. The revenue generated by dam projects goes to the power companies, while the tax collected goes to the governments. People displaced by dams do not end up getting any of the jobs created by the construction project or, all too often, even very much of the promised compensation. Instead, they get a heavy burden. A February 2006 study conducted by researchers at the Party School run by the Communist Party found that dam building in the upper reaches of the Yellow River in Qinghai province has not helped local people become better off but has actually deepened the poverty in the reservoir areas. The dams have been built over the past 28 years but the affected families are becoming poorer, and education and health costs have soared beyond their reach. The researchers found that many relocated families were cooking in the same room in which they were living and sleeping. In many of the households they visited, the value of the family’s assets amounted to less that 200 yuan (US$25).
  3. Deepening social unrest
    Population resettlement presents an opportunity to build a new industrial system in a reservoir area, but this also poses challenges for both the governments and the affected people. Building new industries can be enormously difficult given stricter pollution
    controls, inadequate management skills, lack of developed markets and poor transport infrastructure. In these circumstances, the result are likely to be a dearth of industry, rising unemployment and marginalization of the displaced groups. The Three Gorges reservoir
    area provides an example of this problem. For a dozen years, China’s provinces and municipalities have contributed a total of 13 billion yuan (US$1.625 billion) to the Three Gorges region, and yet industrial reconstruction there is not going very well. While the old factories and enterprises are gone, a new industrial system has yet to be established, and agriculture and the service industry remain underdeveloped. The lack of job opportunities in the reservoir area means that about 100,000 mostly urban residents are out of work, while an estimated one million underemployed farmers are essentially surplus labour in the region. The situation would have been even worse if some of the displaced people had not joined the floating population of rural migrants and left the reservoir area to look for work elsewhere, particularly in south China.
  4. Environmental problems
    Another problem associated with dam resettlement is environmental degradation. The phenomenon known as “reverse flow” is not only a past problem, but also a current one. Some people ousted by dam projects have abandoned resettlement sites and returned to their places of origin after encountering difficulties in rebuilding their livelihoods, adapting to a new climate and integrating into host communities. With their old houses and farmland lost to the reservoir, the returnees have no choice but to farm the fragile slopes above the reservoir, which poses serious threats to the surrounding environment. Of special concern is the fact that the returnees, lacking access to sewage systems, pour wastewater directly into the reservoir, putting further strain on an already polluted body of water.

Why have the problems with dam resettlement not been resolved?
Problems related to dam resettlement emerged at the time of the founding of the People’s Republic [1949] but have remained unresolved for a long time. The root causes can be summarized as follows:

  1. Farmers do not own their land: The builders of dam projects are powerful, while the displaced groups are weak. They have no say in project decision-making because they lack title to their land. In China, the state owns the land, and while farmers can use it, they cannot own it. In most cases, dam builders requisition farmland in the name of national construction, or as “representatives of the interests of the state.” Farmers are seldom invited to take part in discussions related to water development and the dam-building business, let alone to have any say on how much compensation they will get for requisitioned land. Land requisition is usually a top-down process, going from ministry to province, to city or prefecture, to county or district, then to town or township, to
    villages and, finally, to the households involved. Lacking title to their land, the affected groups have no legitimacy or right to bargain over the compensation they are offered. But for the dam builders, this collectively owned land is like a free lunch. Moreover, to keep project costs down, power companies usually do everything they can to pay as little compensation as possible. The affected people can do nothing about this, and have no choice but to move.
  2. Rights to development ignored: The government and project authorities declared that resettlement policies would be centred on the needs of the affected people: They would have access to information, be able to choose their destination and their future livelihoods. The policy also promised that affected groups would be restored to their original standard of living, or even become better off after resettlement. In most cases, however, the demands and interests of the displaced people have not been respected. Many of them have not received decent, adequate compensation and so have not been able to rebuild their lives and livelihoods. In some cases, they have not been allowed to choose where they will live. And in many circumstances, they are unable even to voice the problems related to resettlement that they have faced. In the case of Three Gorges, even at an early stage of the feasibility study we raised concerns about the limitations to the population carrying capacity of the area. But our concerns were ignored by the project authority, which insisted that all the resettled residents could be relocated nearby on higher ground. During the feasibility study, the policy of “resettlement with development” was proposed. This approach was extolled as the best way to resettle those who would have to be moved, but in fact it has not been a success. The so-called “resettlement with development” policy simply meant moving people up onto higher ground in the reservoir area or driving them out of the area to remote places
    elsewhere in country, regardless of how they felt about that or what happened to them after resettlement.
  3. Feasibility studies and decision-making: undemocratic and unscientific: Feasibility studies and decision-making on hydro projects are not done in a democratic or a scientific manner. The affected people’s difficult situation is not taken into account, nor is their willingness to move ever assessed. And take my own personal experience: Before the formal launch of the Three Gorges project, I published several articles expressing my views on the dam, which differed from the official line. Soon afterward, an order came down from the director of a certain government ministry banning me from participating in research projects. I was an ordinary researcher who had simply said what I knew to be true, based on science, but I was treated in a cold and unfair manner. I don’t consider this a good way of dealing with different views on big issues in general, and with decision-making on water projects in particular. In my opinion, listening to different points of view and suggestions will help improve the work involved in developing water resources, as well as the job that is done of resettling people affected by dams. In the interests of protecting themselves and furthering their political careers, officials overseeing the dam business and associated resettlement schemes have attempted to conceal the problems that have arisen. Moreover, in some cases displaced people who seek help from higher authorities are watched, followed and even attacked. But doing so only serves to make matters worse, as the grievances will accumulate and erupt some day. People moved for dams have to pay a heavy price, both economically and psychologically.
  4. Corruption and the loss of resettlement compensation funds: Official corruption is a major problem with dam resettlement schemes. Money is pocketed or misused in a variety of ways: costly buildings erected and luxury cars bought even before the dam project starts; money is transferred into secret accounts for officials’ personal use; bribes are received from friends and relatives in exchange for lucrative project contracts; and so forth. The Wanzhou Salt Chemical Engineering Enterprise serves as a case in point. During the course of the Three Gorges feasibility study, the government decided to set up an enterprise that would absorb local people displaced by the dam. But after sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into the project, it had to be abandoned due to changes in the market. Nobody knows how many corrupt officials have been created by dam projects in China, nor how many are yet to emerge.


Several lessons should be drawn. First of all, a real “people-centred” policy cannot be created under a system with monopoly sectors. Secondly, given the lack of a level playing field, serious scientific and academic researchers cannot
win the debate with people engaged in power politics. Thirdly, the deprivation meted out to people moved to make way for dams results in poverty and, worse, social unrest. And last, but not least, the lack of workable checks on power is at the root of all the problems associated with dam-related resettlement in China.

Categories: Three Gorges Probe

Tagged as:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s