The dam that moves a mountain

La Trobe University researcher Dr Brooke Wilmsen estimates the Three Gorges Dam project has displaced close to 6 million people.

In the last fifty years China has undergone an economic transformation that has seen rapid and substantial change for much of its population. Remarkable in its scale, speed and reach, accelerated urbanisation has seen millions of people moving from the country to the city in response to employment opportunities largely in the manufacturing sector.

One of the most significant and controversial parts of this was the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project. Straddling the Yangtze River, it stretches from the village of Sandouping (near Yichang city in Hubei Province) to Chongqing city - some 600 kilometres. At a cost of more than ¥180 billion (more than $350 billion AU), the Chinese government considers it historic, an engineering, social and economic success.

The disruption caused by this achievement is substantial. The dam fundamentally changed the landscape of the province, flooding cultural and archaeological sites and altering the ecosystem. It has destabilised the area increasing the risk of landslides, and has officially displaced some 1.3 million people.

Dr Brooke Wilmsen, a Research Fellow in Anthropology at La Trobe University, has been researching forced displacement and resettlement, and the long-term effects of the Three Gorges Dam have been of particular interest.

“The Chinese government’s official number of 1.3 million people resettled always comes with a footnote about how you define displacement,” says Dr Wilmsen. “When factoring in those who have had to move due to seismic activity caused by the dam and environmental protection we estimate it to be closer to 6 million people.”

“A project of this scale has had a long-term effect on development in the region, and that’s before you get to the actual displacement caused by its construction. It’s impossible to draw an accurate line around who has been affected by the Three Gorges Dam and who hasn’t. There are people whose homes are inundated by the dam, but then there are people displaced for a whole lot of reasons related to the dam, including lost livelihoods.”

There had long been an intention to alter the Yangtze River as it flowed through the Hubei province. It was first proposed more than 70 years ago by Dr Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the Chinese Republic. In the 1950s Mao Tse-Tung penned a poem called ‘Swimming’ in which he envisioned ‘walls of stone’ to be erected.

“The Three Gorges Dam has been a long-term project for China, in both conception and construction,” says Dr Wilmsen. “This had impacted development in the area decades before the dam began serious planning.“

Dr Wilmsen first travelled to the Hubei Province in 1997 before the area was submerged, and returned in 2003 to survey the residents about the resettlement process and the impact it was having on their livelihoods.

Brooke Wilmsen“The Maoist ideology was particularly strong in the area before the resettlement. Pictures of Chairman Mao were still in the main rooms of the houses, and the people subscribed to the idea that they had suffered for the greater good of the country.”

Dr Wilmsen’s longitudinal study followed the resettlement process of 521 households and found that despite widespread impoverishment in 2003, by 2011 there was remarkable improvements across a whole range of indicators.

“The residents who were displaced were often poor to begin with,” says Dr Wilmsen. “Many of them were employed in manual construction labour that had sprung up in relation to the dam. While they received compensation it wasn’t an adequate amount, and there was a lack of information and support for resettlement. In 2003 many of the people I met were living off their compensation just to cover their basic needs.”

However, by 2011 the regional development initiatives that had been driven by the Central Government had begun to pay off.

“Incomes had increased and especially in the urban areas, incomes were almost 80% those of affluent Yichang City,” says Dr Wilmsen. “Surprisingly, over the eight years between surveys, social wellbeing had also improved suggesting that people are adapting to their lives.”

The Chinese Government has declared its relocation efforts a great success, but the Three Gorges resettlement is an exceptional example. Most resettlement projects do not attract the attention or investment afforded to the Three Gorges Dam, and basic compensation for losses and impoverishment is commonplace.

At the Three Gorges, China’s rich east coast provinces partnered with the affected counties to build infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.  Moreover, incentives and national mobilisation efforts encouraged extensive economic development, fuelling a dramatic increase in manufacturing activities. The area has been rebranded ‘Gateway to the West’, and new freeways and railways have had a pay-off for resettled residents.

However, the region of the Three Gorges Dam is not without its problems. The pressure of the dam has led to unstable geology in the area, and increased seismic activity has caused earthquakes and landslides. One of the provincial towns Dr Wilmsen studied has been deemed unstable, and residents are being resettled a second time.

“There has been an enormous out-migration of around 30% of the population that we worked with,” says Dr Wilmsen. “In the villages now you have mostly older people and young people, which is the story of rural China, so how sustainable these locations are in the long term is really the question.”