The ecological and social vulnerability of the Three Gorges resettlement area, China 1992–2012 A case by Ying Xing, Elisa Privitera
The Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River in Hubei province (China) is an emblematic and controversial case of forced migration due to development projects The realization of this project has produced the world’s largest dam-displaced population. The entire process was worsened by the fact that those displaced people were moved to an already ecologically vulnerable area. The mutual reinforcement of ecological and social vulnerability has caused an unprecedented environmental crisis. As a result, according to Ying Xing (2017) dam resettlers became ecological resettlers and, finally, a homeless population.
The Three Gorges Project is in line with the Chinese national trend of creating mega-infrastructures that are usually the output of the intertwined of top-down decisions, laws, and plans from the government and private investment. By the end of 1999, China had built over 86,000 reservoirs and hydroelectric plants. Today there are 17 million people displaced by dams in China (Tang Chuanli 2002, 1). Specialists believe that one-third of this population has been relatively well resettled, one-third has been resettled with difficulty and the remaining one-third has not been well resettled (Li Boning 1996, 317). The Three Gorges Project has the greatest scale among all dam projects in the world, and the Three Gorges resettlers have become the world’s largest resettlement population.
The story of this project started in April 1992, when China's National People's Congress (NPC) formally approved the "Resolution on the Construction of the Yangtze River Three Gorges Project," marking the conclusion of decades of controversy within the Chinese leadership in favor of supporters of the world's biggest-ever river dam project. The following year, a pilot project for the resettlement of an estimated 1.1 to 1.6 million inhabitants began to be implemented. As a matter of facts, from 1992 to 2012, the total population of Three Gorges resettlers reached 1.2964 million, including 557,700 rural resettlers.
Resettlement was complicated by the fact that the area around the dam was ecologically and socially vulnerable. 11 of the 20 counties were considered poor with few arable land and considerable soil erosion. These problems have made difficult the relocation of rural resettlers. For instance, population pressure has worsened soil erosion through the expansion of agriculture on slopes in Yunyang County, where over 48.1 percent of farming land was on slopes exceeding 25 degrees (Yunyang County Gazetteer Compilation Committee 1999, 97; 207).
Therefore, the three major factors which restrict the development of China’s rural areas—a large population, the shortage of resources per capita (especially land resource per capita), and a fragile ecological environment— had been very prominent in the Three Gorges reservoir rural area. Among the 557,700 Three Gorges rural resettlers, there are 196,000 people who were forcibly relocated into such an environment (The Three Gorges Resettlement Project 2015).
Due to the pressure of environmental vulnerability, especially after the flood in the Yangtze in 1998, the Chinese government had to adjust the policy of the Three Gorges rural resettlers starting in 1999.
The initially planned external relocation of 83,000 people soared to 361,700 people in 2009. This is 64.86 percent of the total population of rural resettlers. Most of the areas of external relocation are in China’s more developed coastal areas, such as Shanghai, Guangdong, and Zhejiang, and Shandong Province.
The external relocation of the Three Gorges resettlers both affects the life of the original residents in the relocation area, and the living standard of the externally relocated resettlers, at least for three reasons:
(1) The amount of arable land is insufficient due to the land occupation of urbanization and relocation;
(2) The incomes of externally relocated resettlers and original residents are both declining in this scenario. The industrial basis of many relocation areas is weak, and the business and service market has limited capacity and intense competition.
(3) The lack of employment is another significant problem for resettlers and original residents.
As mentioned earlier, the Three Gorges resettlers were originally project-resettlers rather than ecological resettlers. However, after the Three Gorges dam was impounded to the high water level, the living conditions of resettlers who were locally relocated continued to deteriorate, the geological hazards on the reservoir grew, geological disasters occurred frequently, and the ecological environment in the reservoir directly threatened the lives of some resettlers. As a result, the Chinese government had to arrange so-called “risk avoidance relocation.” Therefore, some of the Three Gorges resettlers became ecological resettlers. After 2008, nearly 100,000 ecological resettlers were generated as a result of serious geological disasters alone.
In 2009, the Chinese government announced that the Three Gorges resettlement task had been largely completed. However, the “unintended consequences” of the Three Gorges resettlement are far from being fully resolved.
It is worth noting that from 2002 a considerable segment of externally relocated resettlers began to return to their original residence in the reservoir area. There were many causes for the resettlers’ return. Among the causes, the most important one was dissatisfaction with the production or living conditions provided by the external relocation areas. In addition, many resettlers were “blank registered residence,” a term which referred to resettlers who merely moved their official residence into the relocation areas, but still lived in the reservoir area. Some local governments cheated in the external relocation task by creating a large number of “blank registered residences.” Those who moved back to their hometowns and those with “blank registered residence” have become homeless people or shed dwellers. The returning resettlers left the relocation areas arranged for them by the government, but their old houses in the reservoir area were demolished and their land submerged. Once their shanties are submerged due to the rise of the water level of the Three Gorges, they become homeless people.
National Government and Ministry of Water Resources Local communities Local governments Private Companies
The whole displacement process was guided by China’s ‘developmental resettlement’ policy that aimed to maintain or enhance the living standards of resettlers. Implementing this policy on such a massive scale has been an increasingly difficult challenge for the Chinese government. However, it is worth noting that the policy response of Chinese government over the time reflects the political system of modern China, that is, a typical party-state mobilization system in which the state has adopted a massive and top-down modernization strategy. This political feature has exacerbated the original resistance of dam resettlers, while considering modernization, with dam building projects as a key feature, a more important goal than environmental protection.
According to Ying Xing (2017), the state dealt with the relocation issue as merely a question of economic compensation. For the Chinese government, resettlers should learn to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the national interest. Thereby, the involvement of local government and communities in the decisions concerning the Three Gorges Project has always been extremely weak. This has also implied a fragmented vision of the entire project in its relationships with the Yangtze River basin, which has led to underestimate the difficulties of resettlement.
Nevertheless, the policy response has gone through several changes during the decades.
According to Shawn Steil and Duan Yuefang (2002), in the early days of the project (1992-1998) the resettlement policy aimed at moving people to contiguous areas, preserving their agricultural way of life. That policy was lauded for its social sensitivity, as resettlers were supposed to remain within their own counties and occupations. It was not until 1998 that the central government began to acknowledge that deforestation in the Yangtze basin was responsible for serious flooding, therefore, demanding for reforestation rather than the expansion of arable lands. This realization has led to major policy changes limiting the amount of land available for resettlers and placing greater emphasis on distant resettlement. For this reason, after 1998 the Chinese government has also carried out "ecological relocation projects". The so-called ecological resettlers refer to the displaced population which was relocated because of the deterioration of the environment or to protect the environment from destruction.
As Yan Tan, Graeme Hugo and Lesley Potter (2003) have demonstrated, from 2000 onwards, there has been a shift from a policy of settling rural migrants to uphill sites within the immediate reservoir area to encouraging rural migrants to move to more distant resettlement sites.
Some scholars have also pointed out the problem of over-expectation created by the government which has exaggerated the advantages of the relocation areas in order to encourage people to move there (Xing Y., 2017).