Millions Displaced by Dams

As a fish person, I have heard the joke a hundred times, and each time I must pretend that it is the first time in order to not deflate the enthusiasm of the joke teller.  You know the one, “What did the fish say when it ran into the wall?”  I wait, not too long, not to short, then give a believable shrug of the shoulders like I am stumped.  As they proclaim “Dam!”, I laugh like I have never heard it before.


The Hoover Dam being built in the 1930s (Credit)


The Golden Age of dam construction in the United States came to a grinding halt in the
 1980s, and developing nations picked up the torch and continue carrying it today.  Irrigation, hydropower, flood control, and water supply dominate the list of dam purposes, creating large impoundments that inundate vast areas of land.
More than 80,000 dams in the US (Credit)
Fish folk are often made acutely aware of the ecological impacts of dams on fish migration and habitat fragmentation, yet social impacts to humans have been mostly overlooked or disregarded until recently.  With increasing global awareness of the social costs of large dam projects, the World Commission on Dams was formed in 1998, and subsequently published the first systematic assessment of large dams from around the world.
According to the report, some of the most challenging socioeconomic aspects of dam construction relate to the resettlement of individuals from the upstream catchment area and dam site.  People are often displaced through coercion, force, or even by purposeful filling of reservoirs prior to the departure of those who are to be displaced.  Resettlers seldom see their living conditions improve, and often slip further into poverty.  Further, those downstream, especially those relying on natural flood plain function and fisheries, are often affected by reduced flows and are almost never compensated for their loss.
More than one million people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam, China (Credit)


Case studies from The World Commission on Dams demonstrate that a disproportionate amount of the adverse impacts caused by dams fall on poor and rural populations, subsistence farmers, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, and women.  These groups, especially in developing countries, are underrepresented in politics, and seldom have equal human rights.
In the limited number of cases seen as successes, fewer instances of injustice and better resettlement outcomes were the result of the affected people and the stakeholders directly negotiating compensation packages.  While compensation is not always seen as the most effective or appropriate option, people tended to feel more satisfied for having engaged in negotiations.  Additionally, a positive outcome required full engagement of political, institutional, and community groups. 

So, next time I hear someone ask me the joke about the fish bumping its head, maybe I will not only be thinking of the fish.  Would it be terrible if I were “that guy”, and answered their joke with: “Damn this disproportionately socially impacting pile of cement.”

Leave a comment below telling us what would be fair compensation to make you leave your house and land so that a dam could be built.

Patrick Cooney

Further Reading:

Human Rights in the Three Gorges Dam Resettlement

World Commision on Dams Report


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Lindsay Campbell says:

    Is there really a fair compensation for the disruption of your life and livelihood? What about that the Three Gorges dam caused the Earth's pole positions to shift? yes only 2 cm, but still something that effects the whole world?

    On the flip side in an ethics class we discussed how removing a dam for restoration of salmon passage would have far reaching effects on humans: lack of dam would render the farms in the area useless without the irrigation, electricity costs would go up, shipping of goods would have to be diverted from water to land causing rise in shipping costs thus rise in food and goods prices, plus the increased carbon footprint of truck shipping. Humans, we create problems that have no good solutions either way.

  2. eventer79 says:

    I agree with Lindsay on the first bit — there was also a calculation (I don't have the citation on me) that the weight of the water pooled in all the earth's reservoirs has increased the rate of planetary spin and changed the Earth's orbit around the sun, which no doubt affects climate, day lengths, and things I can't even think of.

    How can you compensate for something that shifts an entire planet from its almost 5 billion year old pattern of existence?

  3. pcooney says:

    Lindsay and Brena…I found it interesting that women were one of the groups more highly impacted. Reading further about this, I found that it was because of a lack of the same property rights as men in some countries. When a man dies, his family can continue occupying the land, but his wife does not own the property. Once the people are displaced by a dam being built, the women are not compensated for their loss since they techinically do not own anything.

    Also, people from developed countries like to think of this as a problem of other countries. However, back in the dam building phase of many developing countries, including the US, many poor and indigenous people were removed from their land. China, India, and Chile are the current major human displacement culprets (Three Gorges, Sardar Sarovar, and HidroAysen projects, respectively).

  4. eventer79 says:

    I think it's not a big leap to an ongoing problem here — the mining spoil dams holding back valley fill in the Appalachians that breach and drown towns, homes, and people, destroying lives that often receive no compensation whatsoever as the mining companies weasel their way out of responsibility, much like TVA or current entities within the Chinese government.

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