Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Lives and Livelihoods of those Affected by the Zangmu Dam

Priyanca Mathur Velath

On 18 October, 2009, China revealed an ‘official’ plan to relocate a huge population of people who would be displaced by the Zangmu Dam. This is going to be China’s second largest resettlement plan, after the resettlement of the 1.27 million people displaced by the Three Gorges Hydro-Power Project. The people who are being evacuated from their homes are those living in the area around the proposed Danjiangkou reservoir in the Hubei and Hunan provinces, where a sluice will be built to divert water from the Yangtze river and its tributaries, the official Xinhua News Agency said. Information has been received that the Nanshan Regional Administration had issued orders as early as October 30, 2007 for the evacuation of people from the area from November 1, 2007. According to this order, the dam site was to include all areas upto 3310 m above sea level and people inhabiting these areas were asked to vacate. According to Indian media reports, resettlement authorities in Henan have already chalked out a huge resettlement project affecting 3.3. Lakh people spread over the central Chinese provinces of Henan and Hubei. The end-time of the resettlement process has been fixed at 2011, Xinhua said, citing Henan provincial authorities.

According to information with the Indian media, there is evidence that China has begun constructing a dam on the river that is known as the Yarlungzangbo (or Yarlong Tsangpo to the Tibetans). The plan is to build a series of five medium-sized dams along the river in the Nanshan region at Zangmu, Jiacha or Gyatsa, Zhongda, Jiexu and Langzhen, with the one at Zangmu being the first one. More information is available on the Zangmu hydrolectrical project, that was inaugurated on March 16, 2009 and where the first concrete was poured on April 2 this year. This Zangmu dam is supposed to be a gravity dam with water blocking structures that could mean the construction of a reservoir. It is expected to generate 540 MW; its height will be 116m, length 389.5m and it is to be 19 m wide at the top and 76 m wide at the bottom. It’s a 1.138 billion Yuan project that has been awarded to a five-company consortium, the Huaeneng Corporation, one of China’s biggest power companies. The tendering process for this entire project is being overseen by the Three Gorges International Corporation. In fact this water-diversion project could be nearly three times as expensive as the world’s largest hydroelectric project, the Three Gorges Dam, where the villages of the affected people had been flooded by a 660 km (410 mile) long reservoir that that dam had created in the middle of the Yangtze River.

A month ago, the Gezhouba group is believed to have publicly noted that the setting up of the concrete feed line to the Zangmu Dam had been successfully completed. In fact since February, satellite images have shown construction activity in Zangmu and Ziacha with evidence of labour quarters. Yet, let alone informing India of its plans, China has continuously just issued bald-faced denials when questioned about this dam.

The essential idea of this entire project is to divert water hundreds of kilometers to provide water to booming cities in China’s arid north like Beijing, Tianjin, Henan and Hubei. Its three routes are supposed to move billions of tons of water from China’s central, southern and western regions through pipes and canals to the fast growing northern cities. In fact, the central route, which is expected to supply one-fourth of Beijing’s water, is expected to be completed by 2014. But what needs to be noted in that there have been warnings issued by critics that ‘environmental damage will be created by this water diversion and boomtown’s thirst will not be quenched.’ There is also growing concern among opponents about the mass scale displacement that this project is going to entail.

The Chinese provincial government is assuring its people that each relocated family will be allotted new arable land in the newly built villages according to a standard of 0.1 hectare per person. It has also been insisting that not only will the soil of the approved new resettlement areas be good but that these sites will also have convenient traffic conditions. It has also been saying that it will come up with ‘preferential policies’ to help compensate for the relocation losses suffered by the evacuated people. People have been promised compensation for unmovable property like old house and also an annual subsidy of 600 yuan ($88) per person for twenty years according to the official media quote of Duan Shiyao, Deputy Chief of the Hubei Provincial Resettlement Bureau. But earlier this year there were also reports of complaints from some villagers that they had been forced by officials to sign agreements to relocate and that they had been offered less than half the land they currently use for farming and other means of income. Thus there are valid fears among people that post displacement they may face unequal and forced resettlement.

The biggest fear is the impact that this project may have on lower riparian economies like India and Bangladesh. The reality is that India has no robust water-sharing agreements with China and so may end up being at the losing end if a large share of the Tsangpo river, flowing into India as the Brahmaputra, gets robbed. India needs to institutionalize a sharing mechanism before it is too late, and before Beijing presents New Delhi with a fait accompli about its dams. According to Ramaswamy Iyer, former Water Resources Secretary of the Government of India, the water issue needs to be given more attention, and made as important a part of the agenda as the border issue. The lives and livelihoods of many people dependent on the flowing waters and lush fertile banks of this river, in India and Bangladesh, stands to get affected. On top of all this, one can also never be sure of how far and to what extent the R&R plans outlined by the Chinese authorities actually see the light of the day.


1.Pranab Dhal Samanta, ‘China begins building dam on its side of the Brahmaputra’,, October 15, 2009.
2.Ananth Krishnan, ‘India, China and Water Security’, The Hindu, October 21, 2009.


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