Social impacts of large dams

Posted on July 2, 2014

The construction of a large hydropower dam can involve the flooding of thousands of hectares of farmland and the displacement of families from dozens of villages. Although policies are in place to compensate local residents for losses associated with relocation, the level of reparation may be insufficient. Issues surrounding relocation were explored in a case study centred on the Upper Mekong River in Yunnan, southeast China, which is a mountainous area with high hydropower potential. Yunnan also enjoys higher levels of biological and cultural diversity than any other Chinese province. The researchers gathered data by conducting semi-structured interviews in villages affected by the construction of three new dams at Manwan, Dachaoshan and
Xiaowan. They distinguished three types of wealth: material wealth (e.g., houses, farmland, livestock, crops), embodied wealth (e.g., agricultural, fishing or business skills) and relational wealth in the form of social infrastructure (e.g., community networks, language and customs) and physical infrastructure such as transport, healthcare and educational services. The main finding was that although governments compensated dam-affected residents for losses in material wealth, they were slow to recognise losses in embodied and relational wealth. Houses were always compensated, but the quality and quantity of compensated land were often lacking, sometimes to the point where subsistence farming was no longer possible. Losses in embodied wealth needed to be better compensated, for example in the form of subsidies, tax exemptions and retraining programs that encouraged farmers to shift to other types of work. Patterns of compensation were unevenly distributed, which led to wealth disparities among those affected. The residents who were most severely affected by dam construction and had to be relocated to a completely new area usually enjoyed a higher standard of living than those who remained in, or close to, their original village. This was partly due to the limited availability of uncleared land in the steep valleys near the new dam, and partly to the fact that “far-relocated” villagers received more compensation for houses and farmland and tended to be resettled closer to main roads, with better access to vital services, information and new technologies.

Reference: Wang, P. et al. 2013. A framework for social impact analysis of large dams: a case study of cascading dams on the Upper-Mekong River, China. Journal of Environmental Management 117, 131-140.