After the Deluge: The Urgent Need For Reparations for Dam Victims


In April 1998, the Indian Express newspaper published a horrifying story about female infanticide and baby selling in adivasi (tribal) villages in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The story described how abject poverty had increased the value of boys and forced the adivasis into selling or killing their girl babies. According to the newspaper, every family in 60 hamlets surveyed had at least two cases of girl deaths. Ninety percent of children being sold for adoptions in Andhra Pradesh came from these hamlets.

What is special about these hamlets? Why such a concentration of hideous poverty? Because, the Express explains, the families surveyed were "rehabilitated" in this dry and barren area after losing their ancestral lands to the huge Nagarjunasagar Dam. After 40 years of supposed rehabilitation and despite the nearby presence of the dam -- one of the country's largest irrigation and hydropower facilities -- the villages have no roads, no power supply, no water pumps or faucets.

The plight of the Nagarjunasagar dam victims is depressingly unexceptional. Around the world, from Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, to farmers in Northeast Thailand, communities are suffering the devastating aftershocks of losing to dams their lands, homes, jobs, and life-sustaining resources like forests and fish.

The suffering of dam victims dates back mainly to the gogo years of the big dam era, the 1950s and 1960s, when mass evictions to make way for dams first began on a worldwide scale. It is impossible to state with any accuracy how many people have been forced out of their homes by the world's dams: 30 million would be the most conservative estimate, but the number could top 100 million. The official figure for the number evicted in China alone between 1950 and 1989 is 10.2 million, but Chinese dam critics claim the true number could be as high as 60 million. For India, credible estimates range between 14 and 40 million (maybe 60 per cent of whom are adivasis or Dalits ("untouchables").

The rate at which dams are being built is today far below its peak -- on average 5400 large dams were completed every year in the 1970s, compared to around 2000 dams per year in the 1990s. It is unclear, however, whether the number of people being evicted to make way for dams is declining in step, with China's huge Three Gorges Dam, currently under construction on the Yangtze River, estimated to displace perhaps 1.8 million people, more than four times more than any dam before it.

The main reason for the slow down in dam-building has been the growing strength of dam opponents. Since the mid-1980s, an international movement of groups fighting against dams which are planned or under construction has coalesced from a multitude of local, regional and national anti-dam campaigns and a smaller number of support groups working at an international level. Today, a new wing of the movement is emerging, one which is struggling for justice for past dam victims. This is a movement for reparations, or retrospective compensation, for those who are suffering physical, economic, and cultural harm because of dams which have already been completed.

Dam victims in the past did not stop struggling for just compensation when the last bucket of concrete was poured on the wall of the dam which dispossessed them. But today the efforts of local groups fighting for reparations are as never before being heard at the national and international levels, and communities which had long ago given up the struggle are being inspired by other reparations campaigns to finally start agitating for justice.

Probably the first internationally supported document to call for reparations for dam victims is the 1994 Manibeli Declaration, which was endorsed by 326 human rights and environmental groups and coalitions in 44 countries. This declaration, which was written to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the World Bank, calls for a moratorium on World Bank funding of large dams until a number of conditions are met including the establishment by the Bank of "a fund to provide reparations to the people forcibly evicted from their homes and lands by Bank-funded large dams without adequate compensations and rehabilitation. The fund should be administered by a transparent and accountable institution completely independent of the Bank and should provide funds to communities affected by Bank-funded large dams to prepare reparations claims."

Another widely supported document of the international anti-dam movement, the 1997 Curitiba Declaration, broadened the scope of its predecessor by calling for not just the World Bank, but "all governments, international agencies and investors" to implement a moratorium on large dam building. The Declaration was approved at the first international meeting of people affected by dams, held in Curitiba, Brazil, March 1997. This declaration proclaims that the conditions for lifting the moratorium should include that "reparations, including the provision of adequate land, housing and social infrastructure, be negotiated with the millions of people whose livelihoods have already suffered because of dams" and that "actions are taken to restore environments damaged by dams -- even when this requires the removal of the dams."

Activists involved in the establishment of the World Commission on Dams have ensured that the Commission is mandated to include recommendations on "restoration and reparation" in its final report. Many of the submissions which have been sent to the Commission deal with this issue and it was a prominent theme at the Commission's first regional public hearing, held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in December 1998.

Among the presentations made to the 10 Commissioners present at the Colombo hearing was one dealing with the hardship caused to the ethnic minority Chakma people in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeast Bangladesh by the Kaptai Dam. Kaptai, built with US money and expertise in the early 1960s, displaced 70,000 of the Buddhist Chakma, more than a quarter of their entire population (many were displaced twice -- US engineers underestimated the size of the reservoir and numerous resettlement camps were flooded). The consequent land-hunger among the Chakma and resentment of the government helped spark off a two-decade-long ethnic insurgency which cost 10,000 lives. Since a peace agreement was signed in 1997, the Chakma have been demanding compensation for the "loss of land and livelihood and the suffering that they experienced" from the Kaptai Dam.

Presenters at the public hearing from India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, also highlighted the need for reparations and the reestablishment of lost livelihoods by ecological restoration. Aly Ercelawn from the CREED Alliance in Pakistan, for example, called for reducing irrigation diversions from the Indus River in order to allow more water to flow to the highly degraded Indus Delta and so help restore the health of its fishing and farming communities. L. Mediwake, who lost a large part of his land to Sri Lanka's British-built and funded Victoria Dam, called on the UK Government to help pay for decommissioning the Victoria project and resettling farmers on their old land.

The presentation of Shripad Dharmadhikary of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA - Save the Narmada Movement), outlined the suffering of the adivasis displaced by Bargi Dam, and their ongoing struggle for just reparation (as at Kaptai many people were displaced twice by Bargi because their resettlement camps were flooded when the reservoir filled):

"The people lost not only their land, but access to even the common property resources. They lost access to grazing land, and hence the cattle. People who were eating butter and ghee and milk could now not even offer their guests tea with milk -- something that they talk about very painfully. Their right to the fish from the river too was taken away as the fishing rights in the newly created reservoir were auctioned to a big contractor and the oustees could not even fish for their home consumption. All in all, a prosperous, self-sufficient community was reduced to penury. Even starvation deaths were reported.

"Soon after the reservoir filling, the people...launched a strong agitation, demanding proper resettlement. A series of powerful mass actions were launched...the people occupied their old villages as the reservoir drained and said they would not allow it to fill up again -- and if the Government did fill it up, they would not move, but would be prepared to drown. After a few years of facing police action, harassment and arrests, the Government of Madhya Pradesh finally bowed to the people's resolve, and entered into a process of dialogue.

"The Government...accepted that the oustees, who, on paper were considered as `resettled' were actually not so, and they would need to be resettled. It constituted a Committee consisting of the representatives of the oustees, the NBA and senior Government officials called the `Rehabilitation Planning Committee' to plan the rehabilitation and monitor the implementation. The first thing that was done was to hand over the fishing rights of the reservoir to the oustees' co-operatives.

"However, even four years after the constitution of committee, the situation remains dismal and there is hardly any progress.... Due to this, the Government had to concede the people's demand that until resettlement was completed the level of the reservoir would be lowered to 418m by 15 Dec. from the full reservoir level of 422m. By doing this a good area of land would be freed on which the people could carry out cultivation, providing at least some sustenance. This is an unprecedented decision and is a sign of the seriousness of the situation."

Many of the proposals for submissions to be made at the WCD's second regional Public Hearing in Sao Paulo in August 1999 also deal with the need for reparations. A submission on reparations from Brazil's National Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) states that:

"The errors of the past must be acknowledged and responsibility for them must be assumed. It is ethically unacceptable, socially unjust, and economically irrational to began new large dam projects before the social and environmental problems of earlier dams are thoroughly evaluated and resolved."

MAB's submission calls on the WCD to establish "principles and general guidelines" on reparations to be implemented by national governments and multilateral funders such as the World Bank. These principles should include the assumption of responsibility for the costs of reparations and the suspension of investment in new projects while ongoing problems remain unresolved.

A submission on the Bayano Dam in Panama, written by the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), calls on the US Agency for International Development, which originally proposed the dam, the World Bank, which funded it, and the Panamanian government, to take action to resolve the plight of the Kuna and Embera indigenous communities displaced by the dam. Two thousand Kuna and 500 Embera were evicted from their traditional territories and others were impacted by the colonization of their remaining lands via the roads built to gain access to the dam site. The government broke agreements made with the Kuna and Embera 30 years ago when the dam was built, as well as numerous agreements negotiated since then. The result has been "three decades of land disputes and violence" and a "lack of adequate food, water, and income" among the Kurta and Embera. The most important of the broken commitments are ones to provide the dispossessed communities with adequate compensation for the loss of their traditional territories and legal title to new lands.

The massacre of around 400 Mayan Achí, mainly women and children, in the Guatemalan village of Rio Negro in 1982 is a horrific example of the consequence of forcibly evicting people in a political context where violence is a standard means of resolving conflicts. These people had refused to accept lands offered to them in compensation for the loss of their ancestral lands to the World Bank-supported Chixoy Dam. Despite sending numerous missions to oversee the implementation of the dam project, the World Bank kept silent on the massacres until 1996 when human rights groups forced the institution to undertake an internal investigation into what had happened at Rio Negro. This investigation found that the massacres had indeed occurred, but not surprisingly absolved the Bank from all responsibility for them.

The Bank's 1996 Chixoy investigation concluded that massacre survivors were never adequately compensated and urged the Guatemalan authorities to provide the survivors with more land. However, by this time the Guatemalan power utility that had built the dam was undergoing privatization and claimed to have no money to buy land. The Bank then got a commitment from FONAPAZ (the National Fund for Peace) to purchase the land. According to a WCD submission by Jaroslava Colajacoma from the Rome-based Reform the World Bank Campaign, World Bank staff in Guatemala now consider the Chixoy issue to have been dealt with because "almost all relocated communities have reached the level they had in 1976 [when relocation began] or are about to reach it."

In other words, although the massacre survivors have suffered twenty years of extreme deprivation, terror and the loss of their loved ones, the entities which caused their plight believe that their responsibility is over because they have "helped" the survivors claw back the standard of living they had 20 years ago. Colajocomo adds that the compensation measures which the World Bank claims have now been met were imposed on the communities in 1980 when the state was carrying out a campaign of genocide against the Mayan people. Furthermore, even these insufficient compensations have not been fulfilled, in particular the stipulation that replacement land should be of the same quantity and quality as that lost.

Reparations are also likely to loom large in the 8-10 major case studies of dams which the WCD is undertaking, in particular those of the dams at Grand Coulee (USA), Kariba (Zimbabwe/Zambia), Pak Mun (Thailand), Tarbela (Pakistan) and Tucuruí (Brazil). At Pak Mun, local villagers have carded out a sustained campaign for compensation for fisheries income lost since the project was completed in 1994. As of mid-July, 5000 villagers were continuing an occupation of the dam site they began in March 1999. The draft scoping paper for the WCD's study of Grand Coulee, built on the Colombia River in Washington state in the 1940s, describes how:

"Both the Colville and Spokane [Native American] tribes felt they had been unfairly treated during [dam] construction. In 1951, 1975, and 1991, they took legal action against the government demanding reparations for the forced inundation of tribal lands, the loss of traditional fishing and root digging areas, the failure to honor agreements and treaties, and other `historical inequities.' Their main argument was that the government had never justly compensated them for their losses, despite decades old promises. In 1994, part of the conflict was settled, when federal officials announced that the government would pay the Colville Confederated Tribes, which had owned land on the dam site, a lump sum of $53 million and $15.25 million annually thereafter."

The Spokane tribe, which owned land farther upstream, was not part of this agreement and is still waiting for fair compensation, 64 years after beginning negotiations with the federal government on the acquisition of their land.

While the need for reparations is clear, it is much less obvious how workable mechanisms can be established for holding dam builders and funders responsible for past damage, and for ensuring that reparations are paid in a timely and fair fashion. One possibility is that international agencies, companies, and national governments that have funded dams could be required to put money into reparations trust funds. These could be calculated (on the donor side) as a percentage of the interest that the donors have received in repayments from dams, on the company side as a percentage of their dam-related income, and on the government side as a percentage of receipts from sales of power and water. Funds could also come from a reparations tax levied on all future dam-related contracts (including for maintenance, uprating, and refurbishment of existing dams).

Key to the success of any reparations funds will of course be the structures for overseeing and implementing how they are spent. While these structures would have to vary according to local contexts, one essential principle would be that affected communities would have the ultimate say in any decisions on compensation payments and social development or environmental restoration projects. Reparations committees, including representatives of affected communities, governments, and in some cases perhaps international agencies, could be set up at the project, regional or national level. The committees would establish priority uses of reparation funds and monitor payments and projects paid for by the funds.

An interesting mechanism was used at Pak Mun, where two years after completion of the dam the Thai electricity utility was forced by villager protests into paying retroactive compensation for fisheries losses suffered during the three years while the dam was under construction. More than 6200 families received cash payments each of $1200 dollars, with additional amounts of between $1200 and $2400 per family paid into a villager-controlled agricultural co-operative (the villagers are still fighting for compensation for ongoing fisheries losses due to dam operation).

These are just some of the possible mechanisms which should be explored by the World Commission on Dams: much more creative thinking is required on this issue. While reparation mechanisms are being explored, common sense dictates that construction of new dams should be halted and should not restart until governments and agencies have shown that they are capable of fulfilling their promises to compensate fully and rapidly reestablish the living standards of those they displace.

Further Reading and Resources:

Witness for Peace. (1996). A People Dammed: The World Bank-Funded Chixoy Dam and its devastating impacts on the people and economy of Guatemala. Washington, DC: Witness for Peace.

Thukral, Enakshi G. Ed. Big Dams, Displaced People: Rivers of Sorrow, Rivers of Change. New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Rothman, Franklin D. (1999). "From Local to Global: The Anti-Dam Movement in Southern Brazil, 1979-1992." Mobilization: An International Journal, 1999, 4(1).

International Rivers Network

Friends of the Narmada River

World Commission on Dams

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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