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Global overview

Global overview

No precise data exists on the numbers of persons affected by development-induced displacement throughout the world. Unlike for refugees and internally displaced persons ( IDPs), there are no institutions or publications dedicated to tracking overall DIDR, either at the global or national levels. For an indication of magnitude, most scholars, policy-makers, and activists rely on the World Bank Environment Department's ( WBED) estimate that roughly 10 million people are displaced each year due to dam construction, urban development, and transportation and infrastructure programs. This number is shockingly high, but it still fails to account for large numbers of the displaced. As pointed out in the introduction, displacement tallies almost always refer only to persons physically ousted from legally acquired land in order to make way for the planned project, ignoring those living in the vicinity of, or downstream from, projects, whose livelihoods and socio-cultural milieu might be adversely affected by the project. A count that considers this wider conception of development-induced displacement would be much higher than the WBED's estimate. Furthermore, the global count of displacees would increase with a consideration of displacement stemming from development projects other than those included in the WBED's count, such as natural resource extraction projects.

While no statistics are available on the geographical distribution of development displacees, trends can be gleaned from the WBED's report on the World Bank's (hereafter "World Bank" or "Bank") experience with involuntary resettlement. Table 1, composed of data from the WBED report, gives a regional breakdown of World Bank projects (active in 1993) that had resettlement components. It is worth keeping in mind that displacement in Bank-assisted projects accounts for only a small fraction of the estimated global total – about 3 per cent of global dam displacement and 1 per cent of global displacement from urban and transportation projects.

Table 1. World Bank projects active in 1993 with resettlement, including number of people displaced (source: WBED, 1996)
Region Projects Percentage People Percentage
Africa 34 23.3 113,000 5.8
South Asia 29 19.9 1,024,000 52.1
East Asia 58 39.7 588,000 30.0
Europe/Central Asia 5 3.4 27,000 1.4
Middle East/North Africa 7 4.8 32,000 1.6
Latin America 13 8.9 180,000 9.1
Total World Bank 146 100 1,963,000 100

The list of examples of development-induced displacement is virtually endless. A number of case studies are listed in the sections below; many others are listed in other sections of this research guide. While an effort has been made to provide examples from different regions of the world, some regions are more represented than others in the examples given. This is due in part to the high number of displacement-inducing projects in some areas of the world, but also to the literature's biases towards certain regions and certain projects in particular.

While the analytical case studies are of great worth, it is also valuable to read the actual resettlement planning documents, with details on scheduling and budgets, prepared by governments and private project sponsors during the planning stages of a project. Both the World Bank and Asian Development Bank provide access to a large number of such documents, called Resettlement Plans (RPs), on their respective websites, the links for which are provided below.

World Bank Resettlement Plans
Asian Development Bank resettlement plans

Asia and the Pacific

While development-induced displacement occurs throughout the world, two countries in particular – China and India – are responsible for a large portion of such displacements. According to Fuggle et al. (2000) , the National Research Center for Resettlement in China has calculated that over 45 million people were displaced by development projects in that country between 1950 and 2000. Taneja and Thakkar (2000) point out that estimates on displacement in India from dam projects alone range from 21 million to 40 million. The WBED report notes that, in 1993, World Bank projects in China accounted for 24.6 per cent of people displaced in Bank-assisted projects, while Bank-assisted projects in India accounted for 49.6 per cent of the Bank total.

The Narmada Sardar Sarovar Dam Project in India, which is set to displace 127,000 people, has perhaps been the most widely researched and discussed project involving forced resettlement in history. The volume edited by Drèze, Samson, and Singh (1997) provides a comprehensive look at displacement and resettlement in the project. The Morse and Berger report (1992) is the final report of the Morse Commission, the World Bank's internal review of the project, which found systematic violations of Bank policies and loan agreements, particularly those concerning the environment and resettlement. That report eventually led the World Bank to withdraw funding from the project and has been cited as an important factor in pushing the Bank to create its Inspection Panel, a body tasked with investigating claims from citizens in cases where the Bank has failed to enforce its own policies, procedures, and loan agreements.

China's Three Gorges Dam Project, which will displace upwards of 1.2 million people, has also been widely written about. Yangtze! Yangtze!, edited by Qing (1994) , is famous for having been the first book critical of the project published from within China, while The River Dragon Has Come, also edited by Qing (1998) , provides a further cohort of essays on the dam's likely effects, a number of which deal with resettlement. Stein's article (1998) provides an analysis of the displacement and resettlement made necessary by the Three Gorges project. Fearnside's chapter (1990) offers a technical discussion of the project's resettlement plans, while several other chapters in the volume edited by Barber and Ryder (1990) discuss effects of the project that might contribute to later indirect displacement. China's National Research Center for Resettlement has published a number of reports and updates on the Three Gorges project, as well as many other displacement-inducing projects in the country.

Cernea's paper (1993) discusses the displacement of 40,000-50,000 people in Indonesia to make way for a Jabotabek urban development project, which involved the widening and upgrading of roads in Jakarta and nearby cities. The paper also discusses the modernization of Shanghai's sewerage system, which displaced 15,000 urban dwellers in the city.

National Research Center for Resettlement in China, Hohai University, Nanjing, China


Cernea's paper African Involuntary Resettlement in a Global Context (1997) provides a good statistical and conceptual overview and literature review of DIDR on the continent, while De Wet's contributing paper for the WCD (2000) offers a wide-ranging review of dam displacement in Africa. Among many other things, Cernea's paper notes that while countries like China and India lead the world in the number of persons displaced by development projects, the proportion of population and territory affected by even the largest of projects in these countries is much lower than in some projects in African countries. For example, the Akosombo Dam in Ghana displaced 80,000 people, approximately 1 per cent of the country's population, while the Narmada Sardar Sarovar Dam in India will displace 127,000 people, roughly 0.013 per cent of the country's population. Furthermore, with regard to land affected, projects in African countries sometimes affect a higher percentage of the host country's territory than projects elsewhere. The reservoir of the Akosombo Dam flooded 3.5 per cent of Ghana's land, while that of the Narmada Sardar Sarovar Dam will cover only 0.01 per cent of India's territory.

Colson's detailed study (1971) of the impacts of the Kariba resettlement scheme on the Gwembe Tonga is a classic work, not just of the literature on displacement but also of the field of anthropology. The WCD case study by Soils Incorporated and Chalo Environmental and Sustainable Development Consultants (2000) also assesses the Kariba Dam project in Zambia, which displaced approximately 57,000 people. Fahim's book (1981) offers an in-depth look at the Aswan High Dam Project in Egypt, which displaced close to 100,000 people in Egypt and Sudan. Beyond this, the dam's reservoir inundated the summer resources previously used by nomadic groups in the Nubian region, the population of which numbered in the thousands. Resettlement and compensation schemes failed to include these displacees.

Ghana's Akosombo Dam Project on the Volta River, which displaced 80,000 people, has been closely examined by a number of researchers. The volume edited by Chambers (1970) provides an in-depth examination of the project's resettlement component. Obusu-Mensah's book (1996) , based on primary fieldwork carried out in the early 1990s, discusses the factors that led to resettlement failure in the project. Hart's book (1980) offers a wider look at the history and politics behind the project. The study by Amarteifio, Butcher, and Whitham (1966) discusses the displacement and resettlement one Ghanaian village beginning in 1952 in order to make room for the construction of a new port and harbour. This study was completed and published prior to the completion of the Volta River resettlement operations in the hope that its findings could be of use to resettlement planners.

Latin America and the Caribbean

While overall displacement in Latin America and the Caribbean is not as high as in Asia, the region has seen a number of large and controversial resettlement operations. The study by La Rovere and Mendes (2000) provides a detailed discussion of Brazil's Tucurí Dam Project, Phase I of which was built between 1975 and 1984 and displaced 25,000-35,000 people, despite a pre-project prediction of displacement affecting only 1,750 families in the region. Guatemala's Chixoy Dam Project is famous for the impunity with which resettlement was carried out. The project involved the resettlement of 2,500 Maya Achi Indians, beginning in 1979 and lasting for over a decade, including the massacring of 369 displacees whom local civil patrols and the Guatemalan Armed Forces deemed to be "guerrillas". The Witness for Peace ( WFP) report (1996) gives an overview of the dam project, its resettlement component, and the project's effects on those displaced. Howard's article (1997) offers an account of DIDR in Haiti, looking in particular at displacement in the Péligre Dam Project and as a result of the spread of Green Revolution agricultural technologies.

Robinson's paper (2000) provides an excellent survey of Mexico's historical record of dam building and resettlement. Barabas and Bartolomé's report (1973) discusses displacement and resettlement in Mexico's Miguel Aleman Dam Project, which displaced 20,000-25,000 Mazatec Indians. As the title of the report suggests, resettlement in this case did little to prevent the impoverishment of oustees. Guggenheim's chapter (1993) looks closely at resettlement in the Mexico Hydroelectric Project (MHP), which took place in the early 1990s and included two separate dam projects, displacing a total of 3,500 people. While problems arose, resettlement in the MHP's two projects was largely considered to be a success. The low numbers of displacees involved might have made such a success easier, but the World Bank's insistence on high resettlement standards and participatory planning methods were undeniably important factors in the success.

Europe, the United States, and Canada

Large-scale DIDR is not common in industrialized countries in Europe and North America today. However, history is replete with examples of displacement-inducing projects in these countries, particularly in North America, even if the literature is not. Scudder's chapter (1996) is well known for its examination of livelihood displacement and political mobilization amongst the Cree in Canada's James Bay Power Project. The WCD case study report by Ortolano et al. (2000) offers a detailed examination of the Grand Coulee Dam Project in the United States – a project that extended over some forty years between 1933 and 1975 and displaced approximately 5,100-6,350 people (both indigenous and non-indigenous) in the region, while also adversely affecting (without compensation) indigenous populations north of the border in Canada. Berman (1988) provides a critical discussion of the displacement and resettlement of 300 indigenous families from land protected by treaty to make way for the Garrison Dam in the United States in the 1950s.

Last updated Aug 17, 2011